TAMPA -- In 2000 Florida became critically important only on Election Day and after, when it became clear Florida's 27 electoral votes would decide the matter. This year we know up-front that Florida will be critical, especially for John McCain, who can't win without it. This is why with a week and change left until the election it's hard to take a walk in Central Florida without tripping over somebody on one ticket or the other.
Last week it was Barack Obama's turn for a multi-day Florida visit, and Joe Biden will be in New Port Richey today, Ocala and Melbourne Tuesday, and the West Palm Beach area Wednesday. But Sunday was Sarah Palin's turn to fire up the local faithful in an appearance before about 4,000 at the Tampa Convention Center. And fire them up she did, with the standard McCain/Palin themes of lower taxes, less regulation, smaller government, energy independence, and a vigorous, no-defeat, foreign policy.
"We need a tough, experienced leader now," Palin said, leaving unsaid but hanging in the air that a rookie who recoils from the word "victory" just won't do. "Our pro-growth policy will get the economy back on track," she said. "We recognize small business is the backbone of our economy."
Palin repeatedly returned to the theme that a McCain/Palin administration would lower taxes and allow Americans to keep more of their own money rather than increase taxes to allow the federal government to "spread the wealth around," as would almost surely happen in an Obama administration. She said, "It's not mean-spirited or negative campaigning to call someone out on their record." She then went on to call out you-know-who in clear terms. The word "socialist" came up.
There was plenty of red meat in the rest of Palin's remarks, including a huge cheer when "drill-baby-drill" came up, as it always does. She promised that a McCain/Palin administration would spread opportunity rather than "your wealth," and would not punish hard work and initiative. She said the McCain/Palin agenda "is not the Obama, Pelosi, Reid agenda."
AS INSTRUCTIVE as Palin's remarks were, and as enthusiastic the response to her was, what her assembled fans shared with me before the services got under way was just as interesting. Pollsters and most of the left-stream media may think the race is over (you can look up the numbers yourself), and that Obama has only to put the finishing touches on his inaugural address and choose a collection of lefties for his cabinet. (Bill Ayers for Secretary of Education?) But the Sunday bunch in Tampa still believes the race is on. They gave up a big cheer and some hoots when Palin said that she and Obama had both played basketball, "but you have to win the game before you cut down the net." These guys are enthusiastic McCain/Palin boosters, and they know why.
David Parks of Lakeland, a 41-year-old former Marine captain who does IT work, said the lead changed hands when the economy took a dive and could just as well change again. He questions the methodologies some pollsters use when designing their samples. Troy and Amy Beaubien of Bradenton say they aren't big believers in polls. "It's a stacked deck," Troy said.
Martha Chianella of New Port Richey, a middle-aged, pro-life Catholic, likes Palin's energy and optimistic personality and appreciates her lifetime associations with upright people rather than some of the distinctly off-plumb characters Obama has chosen to hang with. As a young woman and mother of four in New York, Chianella found herself for a time on welfare. But she said when things turned around for her she paid the state back all the money she had collected. What a concept.
"Life is a do-it-yourself project," she said. "It's not a give-away."
Richard Platt of Brandon was wearing an NRA tee-shirt with a campaign button that says "You go, girl" next to a picture of Sarah Palin. Platt is still clinging to his guns, but he's not noticeably bitter (I didn't ask about his religion). He says Obama and Pelosi and Reid are all anti-gun and fears Obama would try to stack the Supreme Court with anti-Second Amendment justices.
Thirtyish Jennifer Jolly-Gonzalez of Tampa was fetching in a hat with homemade moose antlers. Her advice for voters leaning toward Obama was, "Just vote present." Her husband, Juan Carlos Gonzalez, wore a tee-shirt with the legend "Misery in the Making" over a likeness of Obama. Juan says he's a record producer, mostly heavy metal stuff, which I told him sounded like Democratic territory to me. He said many of his rockers are conservative, at least in the economic area.
"You can be crazy as a loon and still not want to pay high taxes," he said.
THERE WERE ONLY a scattering of black people in attendance. One, John Massie, owns a commercial arts studio in Tampa and says taxes are his number one issue.
"Anybody who says he's going to tax me more doesn't get my vote; I don't care what color he is," Massie said. "I've listened to Barack. He's an inspirational speaker. But I just can't relate to the man."
Massie says he's disappointed not to see more minorities at the rally. "We're still drinking the Kool-Aid," he said. He expressed the conservative approach to life and government in a clear and economical way. "You (government) take care of the basics; I'll take care of the rest. If you don't pull yourself up by your bootstraps, the government will take your shoes."
This guy should be running for something.
Another 40ish black guy from Tampa said he came just to see Sarah. Asked what attracted him (other than what would attract almost any man to Sarah Palin), he said, "She's ordinary people. It seems like now everyone in politics has to be a millionaire. I can relate to her." He threw in that McCain is good at coming from behind, so he's not at all sure the race is over.
A middle-aged lady from Tampa said that as a small-business owner she was frightened by Obama's tax policies and heavy leftist tendencies. She said she had never voted for a Republican for president, but would this time. Her companion, also a middle-aged lady, said she is an employee of the City of Tampa but still believes there's too much government now and doesn't want to put Obama in charge and make things worse.
There were more, but you get the idea. The themes of Sarah Palin's normality and the conviction that she understands ordinary people's lives came up over and over again. As did the suspicion that Obama was some exotic whose world is nothing like the world these folks live in. If candidates and pundits are wary of using the word "socialist," these folks aren't. And these thoughts didn't just come from middle-aged white-breads. Just about every demographic was represented, including college students like 20-something Quinay Felicidario, who came to the U.S. from the Philippines 15 years ago.
"It's an honor to see Sarah Palin," she said. "I like her beliefs."
OK, the poll numbers remain pretty doleful for McCain/Palin. But if you have some ground to make up in a short time, the folks I talked to Sunday are not a bad bunch to have on your side. When I hear people say, "America is the greatest country on earth," it's hard not to think of people like these.
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