Candidates pushing hard to claim the Florida prize

The Republican ticket, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, waving to supporters after speaking to a crowdof up to 10,000 at a rally in Daytona Beach, Fla., on Friday night.
The Republican ticket, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, waving to supporters after speaking to a crowdof up to 10,000 at a rally in Daytona Beach, Fla., on Friday night. (PHELAN M. EBENHACK / Associated Press)
Posted: October 22, 2012

LAKE HELEN, Fla. - Inside the cinder-block clubhouse of American Legion Post 127, seven women sit around a table clipping coupons to send to military families overseas, teasing one another over the clicking of billiard balls at the pool table across the room.

It seemed almost a shame for politics to intrude on such a generous and communal scene, but the outcome of the race between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney could well hinge on the decisions of the people in this room and others like them here in Volusia County.

"Obama is the worst president we've had in 40 years - worse than Jimmy Carter," said Barbara Montgomery, 67, a Republican and retired IBM executive.

"President Obama has done as good a job as he could with what he inherited," countered her friend Shirley DeKoff, 83, who said she has voted Democratic in presidential elections, except for Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.

Florida, with 29 electoral votes, is the largest prize among the nine battleground states where the campaign is being fought, and the latest polls show the candidates neck-and-neck, with Romney up by a point or two in the most recent surveys.

The I-4 corridor is the hinge on which Florida swings from one party to the other, and Volusia County anchors the top of the freeway, which begins in Daytona Beach on the Atlantic coast and winds south and west toward Tampa, cutting across the state.

"I think we're going to be biting nails here," said Phil Giorno, chairman of the Volusia County Democratic Party, candidate for state representative - and the bartender at the Legion's weekly social Thursday night.

As a sign of the area's competitiveness, Romney and his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, drew up to 10,000 people at a Friday night rally in Daytona Beach, already teeming with motorcyclists in town for Biketoberfest.

"This is a big country with big opportunities and great challenges, and they keep talking about smaller and small things," Romney told a raucous crowd in the Daytona Beach bandshell. "We have big ideas. Bold ideas. A strong agenda. We're going to get America working again!"

He also said Obama was engaging in "petty attacks and silly word games" - a rejoinder to what Obama had said earlier Friday in another battleground state. The president joked to a Virginia audience that a case of "Romnesia" was preventing the Republican from remembering farther-to-the-right positions he took in the GOP primaries.

Both campaigns are converging on Florida in preparation for Monday's final presidential debate, in Boca Raton.

Four years ago, Obama beat Arizona Sen. John McCain in Volusia County, 52 percent to 47 percent, just a point off the president's national popular-vote margin of 53 percent to 46 percent. Yet two years later, conservative Republican Rick Scott beat Democrat Alex Sink in Volusia in the race for governor, 49 percent to 47 percent - close to Scott's statewide victory margin.

The county contains many of the contradictory elements at the heart of Florida itself. On the west side, it's got vast rural swaths, with cattle ranches, timberland, and fern-growing operations - and housing developments filled with workers who commute to Orlando. The east has Daytona and other beach communities, dependent on tourism. About 10 percent of county residents are black and another 10 percent Hispanic.

In terms of political affiliation, slightly more than 38 percent of Volusia's voters are registered Democrats, about 35 percent are Republicans, and 27 percent are independents.

To Montgomery, the IBM retiree, Romney's experience as a CEO is a plus, and she trusts him to rev up the economy and cut the national debt. "I don't want to leave that to my grandchildren," she said.

Her friend DeKoff thinks Romney - who was secretly taped in another part of Florida disparaging those who pay no income tax and receive government benefits - is insensitive. "I don't think he has good ideas for poor folks and the elderly," she said.

Nancy Roberts said she voted for McCain in 2008 - he is a military hero, and she grew up an Army brat - but has decided she will cast her ballot this time for Obama.

"He's tried very hard to do the right thing, and these problems are not going to be solved overnight," said Roberts, 73. Besides, she does not like Romney's opposition to abortion rights. "Everybody has a right to decide whether or not to carry a child," she said.

Nina Russ, 57, a Democrat who voted for Obama last time, is going with Romney. "He's going to bring that [Keystone Oil] pipeline in and create jobs," she said. "And I'm tired of illegal immigration. We need to do something about that; we've got enough people."

Her husband, Russell, said it's "time for a change" and he is voting for Romney. "I'm conservative by nature, and I'm looking for new ideas," said Russell Russ, a Republican who works at a power plant. "Obama's been terrible. I don't think he was qualified for the job and it shows. He's moving in way too socialist a direction."

The couple own five rental properties in Lake Helen, and Russell has a real estate license.

Volusia's unemployment rate is 8.8 percent, down from a little above 9 percent in August, but about a fifth of homeowners here are "underwater," and the average home value has dropped from $217,000 to $116,000 since 2006. Foreclosures and short sales are common.

"We went into this deep recession that was a long time coming," said Lionel Boisvert, who lives in Deltona, the largest city in the county. "I think it's going to take another four or five years to get back to where we were - if we ever do." He's leaning toward Romney, thinking that the former Massachusetts governor can "bring back jobs quicker."

Ed Vermillyea, 77, of Deltona, scoffed at that talk. "Romney? That rich bastard has put more people out of work than anything," he said. "Sure, Obama didn't live up to all his promise, but look what he inherited. Bill Clinton left a big surplus and George W. Bush blew it all. . .. I think Romney would go back to the Bush policies."

Marty Rotker, 84, grew up a Bronx Democrat in the machine era - "when I was a kid, the most important election was for precinct captain" - and has stayed mostly loyal to the party of his parents, but he finds himself flummoxed when it comes to the presidential race. He has an absentee ballot sitting on his kitchen table in Deltona, but has not yet filled in the optical-scan bubbles.

"It's like choosing between two tubs of crap," said Rotker, a World War II veteran who said he was disappointed with Obama's performance but cannot warm to Romney. "I honestly don't know what I'm going to do. It may be better to vote for the evil you know than the one you don't."


Contact Thomas Fitzgerald

at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com, or follow @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, "The Big Tent,"

at www.philly.com/BigTent.

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