Florida's I-4 corridor is key election battleground

TAMPA, Fla. -- Margel Zukunft, 81 years old, pulled weeds from around a for-sale sign on a recent evening outside her three-bedroom home in the Sun City retirement community near Tampa.

Alone for the past decade, she longs to move to a condominium offering dinner companions and lawn care. But in this panic-stricken economy, Zukunft has no offers -- and shaky confidence in both Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain.

''I can almost remember in 1929 when people went to the bank and took their money out, and I can't help but wonder if I should do that,'' she said. ``I wonder if either candidate is capable of getting this mess straightened out.''

Zukunft's anxiety about the economy is a strong current that runs through the disparate communities clustered along Interstate 4, the Central Florida highway considered a gateway to one-tenth of the electoral votes needed to win the White House.

Nearly one out of five of the state's unaffiliated voters live in this swath between Tampa and Daytona Beach, and an even higher percentage are considered ''persuadable'' Democrats and Republicans. No wonder the area is seeing a flurry of candidate visits, with Republican vice presidential contender Sarah Palin slated to campaign Monday in Clearwater and Fort Myers.

''Someone suggested to me that the whole thing could come down to a couple square blocks in downtown Tampa, and that's not out of the question,'' said Richard Scher, a University of Florida professor, who calculated that the 12 counties hugging I-4 host 38 percent of the state's independent voters.

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