Amid declining poll numbers and political fortunes, President Barack Obama on Thursday tried to reconnect with the fickle state that helped put him in the White House and urged voters to keep the faith despite Florida's withering recession.
He aimed his message at the coveted independent voters clustered in this part of Florida who broke with tradition in 2008 and cast ballots for the Democratic nominee. Independent voters have recently carried Republican candidates to statewide victories in Massachusetts, Virginia and New Jersey, raising the GOP's hopes for the 2010 election.
The Tampa town hall was the first joint appearance outside the Washington area by Obama and Vice President Joe Biden since last February, when they traveled to Colorado to sign the economic stimulus bill into law.
"It's always nice to be out of Washington and spend a little time with the people who sent me to Washington," Obama told a raucous University of Tampa arena filled with more than 2,500 people. Later he added, "Change never comes without a fight, Florida. So I won't stop fighting and I know you won't either."
Obama's third trip to Florida since his election, one day after Wednesday's State of the Union speech, allowed him to back up his jobs-first message with action. With Florida's unemployment rate at 11.8 percent, the administration announced that Florida would receive $1.25 billion in economic stimulus money to help build a high-speed rail line from Tampa to Orlando.
"We're going to put more Americans to work building our infrastructure and building our infrastructure for the future," Obama said. "There's no reason why other countries can build high-speed rail lines and we can't, and that's what's going to happen right here in Tampa."
The project is backed by Florida officials from both parties, creating a quandary for the Republican governor whose Senate bid has been tainted by his embrace of Obama and the $787 billion federal spending plan. Would Charlie Crist snub Obama as he delivered thousands of potential jobs on a silver platter, or would he greet the president whose hug has haunted his dreams of Capitol Hill?
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