TAMPA -- If you don't think Florida is a must-win state for John McCain, I'll wait here while you pick up your national electoral map and try to figure a way McCain could get 270 electoral votes without Florida's 27.
See, you can't do it. I couldn't either. Au the contraire, there are various ways Obama can get to 270 without Florida. So there's a fight on here, with both candidates spending a lot of time in the Sunshine State and a lot on television adds in Florida's 10 (count 'em -- 10!) media markets. If McCain doesn't win in red Florida it's game over, and Michelle Obama can pick out the drapes she would like to see in the Oval Office.
Early on, Obama is well ahead in enriching Florida TV outlets with about $5 million spent here in June alone against almost nothing on the McCain side. But that won't stay the same. Arlene DiBenigno, who heads up McCain's campaign in Florida, said the old fighter jock will be on the small screen in Florida. And she can't help but comment on the small return Obama seems to be getting on his large media investments here.
"Obama has spent a large amount of money in Florida and his numbers don't seem to be moving," she told me.
Moving down if anything. The four statewide polls taken in August and listed on "Real Clear Politics" show McCain leading Obama by between three and six points in Florida, an improvement over McCain's July numbers. Millions spent on ads and a week's world tour as pretend President netted Obama a small loss of support in Florida. These poll results mirror national outcomes that show Obama's approval going down and negatives going up, though he clings to a small lead in most national polls.
DiBenigno suggests that because Obama's approach is uncongenial to a majority of Floridians, he's bumping on a ceiling in the mid to high forties, a ceiling that even massive television ads can't raise. And she's also skeptical of the large number of Obama grass-roots volunteers who are supposed to be working the state.
"We can't find these volunteers," DiBenigno said. "Where are they?"
They're out there beavering away delivering Obama's superior messages on the nation's economy, on foreign policy, veterans' benefits, et al., according to Adrianne Marsh, statewide press secretary for the Florida Obama campaign.
"We're putting on a major effort," Marsh told me. "We're competing statewide, conceding no ground."
These are the kinds of things one would expect Obama campaign types to say, along with phrases like "new kind of campaign," "a real eagerness for change," and "talking politics in a different way" that are sprinkled throughout Marsh's political patter.
NEITHER DIBENIGNO NOR MARSH could tell me how often or when their candidates would be in the state, those decisions to be made later in the flow of the battle. But both whooped up their surrogates, who will be coming to Florida. McCain would seem to have the advantage here.
Mz Hillary, the nation's ex-wife, will be campaigning Thursday in Broward (Ft. Lauderdale) and Palm Beach counties, the bluest of the blue in Florida. McCain, on the other hand, has had and will have again Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, a much more simpatico sort, working South Florida, especially the large Jewish population there that has traditionally voted Democratic. Which one would you rather listen to?
The McCain/Obama confrontation will activate the usual groups, with young people, African Americans, gays, academics, and most in the mainstream media going for Obama, while veterans, business persons, blue-collar workers, and seniors break for McCain.
Young people, especially college students, will be problematic for Obama. Counting on them to vote or work in campaigns is a dodgy business. Every presidential cycle Democrats say young people will flock to the polls to support their candidate. It hasn't happened yet. As a group, college students have a low interest in politics, even though those who are interested are often strident about it. And Godot will show up before these folks report for work.
THERE'S DISAGREEMENT between the two camps over who's doing best with Hispanics. Marsh says Obama has this group wrapped up. Hold your caballos, DiBenigno says. She points out that Hispanics, an awful term made up by the drones at the U.S. Census Bureau, are not monolithic. Even Cubans-Americans, especially the second and third generations, don't vote on Cuba policy alone. And most of Florida's Hispanic now are not Cuban-Americans. Hispanics need to be approached like other voters with a wide variety of interests, she says, and this is what McCain is doing.
DiBenigno should know what she's talking about on this one. She's a Cuban-American whose maiden name is Diaz and who came up in Miami. "We don't vote on that issue alone just because that's what our grandparents did," she said.
For all their disagreements, Marsh and DiBenigno agree on where the race will be decided in Florida. Be prepared for election night commentators to drone on about the I-4 Corridor, which crosses Central Florida from Daytona Beach to St. Petersburg. This is the most politically competitive part of the fourth largest state in the nation. The northern part of the state is McCain country, and it's Obama in a walk down south (except for the Ft. Myers area on the southwest coast).
It will be critical for both candidates to get their voters to turn out election day. Both camps say they will contest the entire state. But don't look for Obama to be giving many speeches in Pensacola, or for McCain to be polishing his act in Boca Raton. Here in Tampa, however, we'll likely be tripping over both of them a lot between now and November 4.