TAMPA -- I finally cornered one of the co-chairs of the McCain campaign for Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, and asked him this highly-nuanced political question:
"So, how are you going to get the locals to vote for a 72-year-old, charisma-challenged geezer? After all, they have the opportunity of voting for Mr. Wonderful, a glib matinee idol who has graciously signaled his willingness to delay his fast-track to sainthood in order to spend eight years in the White House and who has his supporters as excited as leprechauns on St. Patrick's Day."
His detailed answer was instructive (and probably deserved a less smart-alecky question).
"We got zeal too," said Greg Truax. And it's better-organized zeal, he said, as he looked over precinct maps and lists that show every area of this huge county covered like the dew covers Dixie. Truax promises a full-scale grassroots McCain campaign in Hillsborough that includes door to door visitations, phone banks, yard signs without end, a turn out the vote effort, et al. A Republican junior banker wearing a tie can knock on as many doors as a college student high on dreams of change (and nothing else, we can hope). Maybe more. Anyway, that's Greg's story and he's sticking with it.
Truax said when the Hillsborough Republican headquarters opened a couple of months back, Florida Republican Chairman Jim Greer gave a coach's pre-game pep talk to about 150 of the faithful gathered at mid-day (150 at mid-day during the week -- remember, these are Republicans with jobs). Truax said the biggest applause line came when Greer said Job One was "to elect John McCain the next president of the United States." Truax drew a picture of a team ready to burst out of the locker room to charge out on the field and block and tackle.
TRUAX, A SMALL BUSINESS OWNER, is a veteran of many political campaigns and looks it. He concedes the race between Obama and McCain in Florida is and almost certainly will remain very tight. But he predicts a win based on a strong showing in Central Florida -- aka the I-4 corridor -- that runs from Daytona Beach through Orlando to St. Petersburg, the most politically competitive part of the state. Most Polls show McCain ahead slightly in this region and in the state (even though Obama is outspending McCain wildly on television ads in Florida). Truax aims to improve on this slightly by Election Day.
McCain is very strong in the more culturally conservative North Florida, except in the college counties of Leon and Alachua. Obama is steroid-strong in the three large counties that make up South Florida, aka Baja New York. (Here's a quiz to measure savvy about Florida politics: Question -- How many boroughs make up New York City? The untutored will answer five. Wrong. Florida sophisticates know the correct answer is eight: Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, Staten Island, Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach. The old crones in Palm Beach County who admitted on camera in November of 2000 that they were too dim-witted to follow voting instructions at the level of complexity of, "Punch a hole here," all, without exception, had New York accents.) The business will likely be settled in Central Florida.
Hillsborough is a Republican county -- a big majority of county commissioners are Republicans, as is a majority of the Hillsborough delegation to the Florida Legislature. The City of Tampa is a Democratic enclave, represented by liberal Democrat Kathy Castor in the U.S. House. The Tampa House seat was only created in 1962, and has been held by Democrats for the duration. But Tampa is only about 340,000 souls in a county of a 1.2 million. The burbs have been reliably Republican for as long as most of the people who live in this fast-growing area can remember.
Old duffer natives like me can remember Jim Crow and Dixecrats. But this stuff is for the history books. When Tampa Democratic Congressman Jim Davis left a safe seat in the U.S. House to run against Republican (sort of) Charlie Crist for governor in 2006, he not only got his clock cleaned statewide, he didn't even carry his own county. Until recent events, when so many elected Republicans forgot they weren't supposed to act like big-spending Democrats, Central Florida has been a Republican stronghold. We'll find out November 4 how badly the brand has been damaged.
"John McCain's message will be better received in Hillsborough than Obama's," Truax said. "He's (McCain) experienced and ready on day one on national security issues. He understands the need to hold the line on both government spending and taxes. Obama's liberal voting record will not play well in Hillsborough." (That is, if it's aired before Election Day.)
While Team Obama is trying to coax African Americans and college students to do their electoral duty (this latter group a notoriously feckless lot, who Democrats always say will turn out for their candidates, but who haven't made it to the polls in any numbers yet), Truax said McCain will get strong support from small business owners, seniors, and veterans. Thanks to MacDill Air Force Base, Central Command, and Special Operations Command in South Tampa, there is a large military presence here, both active duty and retired. A reliably Republican bloc.
"Obama's message is like eating a donut," Truax said. "It may satisfy for an hour or so. But it doesn't sustain because it's empty calories."
IT'S HARD TO ARGUE with Truax's donut analogy, or his general tactics and approach. If his army of unpaid, local volunteers do their work, and Republicans always go about their work more quietly than Democrats, then this may help deliver a Florida victory for McCain. The only stretch is Truax's contention, perhaps more of a hope, that the mainstream media will do a better job of covering Obama and his record as the election nears.
Obama is not a single thing that he says he is. His voting record may be thin, but it's consistent. He's not a reformer. He's not a uniter; he's a down-the-line liberal Democrat (you could look it up). He's hardly the post-racial candidate. He's voted for affirmative action, which passes out the good things on the basis of skin color, at every opportunity. And he attended for two decades and generously supported a church whose pastor, with the enthusiastic support of his flock, regularly spewed anti-America and anti-white hatred.
The mainstream media have known all of this for more than a year and have ignored it as much as they possibly could, largely because they love Obama every bit as much as Romeo loved his Juliet. Hard to imagine why they would drop their infatuation now and do their jobs like the grownup men and women they purport to be.
Whether or not the mainstream media do their jobs, John McCain's prospects for the White House may well rest on how well Greg Truax, his co-chair colleague, Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, and their army of volunteers do theirs. There are various ways that Obama can win the White House without winning Florida and its 27 electoral votes. But there's no way McCain can. It's Florida and/or bust for the old fighter jock. Truax and his counterparts across Florida know this. They know it's block and tackle time.
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