Politics & Government

Economy keeps Central Florida voters still undecided

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 for her house -- 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.

The latest statewide polls tell a familiar story, with the Republican nominee dominating the northern part of the state and the Democrat carrying the more liberal southern end, leaving the state's heterogeneous midsection up for grabs.

''I-4 is a little bit of South Florida, a little bit of North Florida, a little bit of Yankee transplants, and a little bit of old South rednecks,'' said Mason-Dixon pollster Brad Coker. "It may be the best microcosm of Florida.''

Three days of interviewing voters in 10 communities along I-4 found rampant financial worries, widespread anger toward the current administration -- and a fair number of the fence-sitters that both campaigns seek.

From the neon-lit streets of Ybor City, to the campus of the University of Central Florida to the suburbs around Daytona Beach, many voters remained torn.

Complicating their decisions, many central Florida residents don't feel the straight-ticket voting loyalties common in South Florida, where most Jewish and black voters are diehard Democrats and most Cuban Americans are staunch Republicans.

''I don't know how anyone can be 100 percent on either side, Democrat or Republican, and I seem to be one of those who is caught in the middle,'' said 56-year-old marketing director Celia Isla, barely audible over the din of an espresso machine steaming milk at the West Tampa Sandwich Shop. "Even though McCain says he's a maverick, I don't see him changing the way things are. . . . With Obama, I'm a sucker for an energetic speaker, but I don't want to fall for smoke and mirrors.''

At another table: Michael Diaz, a 51-year-old carpenter who used to run a fishing-guide business but can no longer afford boat fuel.

''We have serious problems, and we need a serious person to take care of it,'' said Diaz, who favors the more experienced Republican senator. "I'm looking for someone who is going to give us great leadership.''

Obama lodged his statewide headquarters nearby and set up scattered outposts in Republican-leaning communities like Sun City, a magnet for retirees from the Midwest. He has poured $7.8 million into television ads in Tampa Bay and the Orlando area — more than half of his spending statewide, said Evan Tracey of TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG. McCain has spent about $2.6 million in Central Florida, out of a total of $3.2 million.

In this politically charged climate, debate over the candidates erupts spontaneously between a white hot dog vendor and an elderly black woman on a park bench in Lakeland, and between a Hispanic tow-truck driver and his passengers stranded around Orlando. Local television is awash in campaign attack ads.

''They've made Central Florida a battlefield,'' said 31-year-old Nick Barulic, who works at Merrill Lynch in downtown Orlando. The registered Republican is still undecided. "There's a significance to this election, and I want to make sure to do the right thing and vote my conscience.''

Reflecting Obama's upswing in the polls, a drive down I-4 found a number of Republicans and independents who weren't ready to commit to McCain or favored Obama.

The trip also revealed an undercurrent of racism -- although always secondhand -- with a handful of voters volunteering that people they know are uneasy about the first black presidential nominee.

''Some people I talk to where I live are still on the racial side and wouldn't vote for him no matter what,'' said Pauline Dishinger, 64, who was loading pickles into her red basket at the Parkesdale Farm Market in Plant City, another frequent stomping ground for candidates.

Farther west in Lakeland, which has a large black community, it's easy to find Obama supporters. Pat Moore, 52, broke into a wide smile at the mention of his name as she hurried back to her job after a lunch break.

''Tomorrow is payday, so I splurged,'' said Moore, who had treated herself to a Filet-O-Fish meal from McDonald's. "I believe Obama can relate to middle-class America and what we're going through.''

''McCain? Another Bush,'' said Carla Bettis, 49, carrying takeout back to her state government job. "John McCain has money and a lot of houses, and I don't think he's feeling the crunch.''

In a state that leads the nation in jobs lost, Central Florida has been hit hard. Headlines from the last week alone show a major timeshare company in Orlando preparing for layoffs and the nation's largest Chevrolet dealer, with showrooms in Sanford and Plant City, going bankrupt.

In the fast-growing Hispanic communities around Orlando, residents are bearing the brunt of a deflated tourism industry. Victor Jaramillo, 35, lost his job at a car service that ferries visitors to area hotels. He has four children, ages 3 to 13. His wife works at Dunkin' Donuts.

A small bright spot of unemployment: meeting friends at the soccer fields on Wednesday and Friday afternoons in Kissimmee.

''I get out of the house and I put the bills behind me,'' said a sweaty Jaramillo, who said he thinks Obama would resurrect the economy and end the costly war in Iraq.

Also on the field was 33-year-old tow-truck driver Sebastian Busquets, whose son in rollerblades and daughter in pink sandals are watching from the sidelines. They lost their home to foreclosure two years ago when the monthly payment ballooned by $600. Now their new landlord is in default, forcing the family to face another move.

''My family can't afford another Republican like McCain,'' Busquets said.

In downtown Orlando, where well-dressed professionals were hustling to work on a recent morning, some voters dismissed the Democratic line of attack that voting for McCain is like voting for Bush's third term.

''I'm voting for this year's candidate, not looking for last year's candidate,'' said Rob Frese, a 47-year-old chief financial officer. ``McCain has the ability to make his own mind up.''

Just north of Orlando in Casselberry, a middle- to upper-income suburb, Nichole Garcia was late for story time at the public library with her 3-year-old daughter. She and her husband are Army veterans who back the war and who agree with McCain's position on continuing the war.

''I believe if we just pulled out our troops immediately, it would cause problems,'' she said. ``All the troops, all the deaths, would be in vain.''

The Miami Herald's last stop was in Port Orange, where 47-year-old Patty Tropea manages a waterfront pavilion used for weddings and other events. The mother of three is a Republican who hasn't made up her mind about the presidential race.

But she, like so many other voters, is certain about one thing: her anger toward Washington.

''I've paid my bills. I didn't go out for lavish dinners or take expensive vacations, and now I have to pay for what other people have done?'' demanded Tropea, referring to the then proposed, now adopted $700 billion bailout of the nation's floundering financial markets. "One of the candidates needs to prove to the American people that they can stabilize the economy.''