Politics & Government

McCain battles back in Florida; Obama lead just 1 point

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama shakes hands with supporters following his speech at Bicentennial Park in Miami, Florida, Tuesday, October 21, 2008. (Mike Stocker/Sun Sentinel/MCT)
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama shakes hands with supporters following his speech at Bicentennial Park in Miami, Florida, Tuesday, October 21, 2008. (Mike Stocker/Sun Sentinel/MCT) Mike Stocker / Sun Sentinel / MCT

Democrat Barack Obama's two-day sweep across Florida showed he can whip up overflow crowds, orchestrate a massive early-voting blitz and rattle off the state's grim economic statistics to drive home his indictment of the Republican Party.

The campaign's reach into nearly every corner of Florida also forced Republican John McCain to hightail it back to a state that once leaned heavily in his favor, with plans to campaign Thursday in Central Florida.

But as the third statewide poll in a week showed the race tightening in McCain's favor, Obama left Tuesday night with Florida still up for grabs.

''We're going to have to fight for every single one of these last 14 days,'' Obama told about 30,000 people who jammed Bicentennial Park in Miami on Tuesday evening. ``We can't let up, Florida, and we won't.''

A survey by Public Policy Polling released Tuesday found Obama's three-point lead in Florida had dropped to a single digit, as more whites and Hispanics gravitated toward McCain.

After weeks of criticism that McCain's Florida campaign was floundering, it stepped up Tuesday by putting Gov. Charlie Crist on the phone with reporters to tout McCain's economic credentials and arranging a daylong string of appearances for Cuban-born Sen. Mel Martinez in Miami's Hispanic neighborhoods on Wednesday.

McCain will arrive Thursday for a ''Keep Your Wealth'' bus tour from Ormond Beach to Sarasota aimed at tarring Obama as a tax-and-spender. Unable to keep pace on television with the Democratic nominee, the McCain campaign has been seeking a way to bury Obama in accusations that he will raise taxes on small businesses like ''Joe the Plumber,'' the working man McCain repeatedly invoked in the last debate.

''Obama hasn't sealed the deal with voters,'' said former state GOP political director Jaime Miller, ``but it's sad when some guy named Joe the Plumber comes up with a better message for the McCain campaign than the McCain campaign.''

''Obama hasn't sealed the deal with voters,'' said former state GOP political director Jaime Miller, ``but it's sad when some guy named Joe the Plumber comes up with a better message for the McCain campaign than the McCain campaign.''

Obama is not ceding the working man's vote. Throughout his tour that took him across Central and South Florida, he rejected the Republican charge that he's a socialist.

''He's decided to completely make up, just fabricate this notion that I've been attacking Joe the Plumber,'' Obama said. ``I got nothing but love for Joe the Plumber; that's why I want to give him a tax cut.''

In a spontaneous exchange with the audience about the economy, Obama said, ''Everyone here wants some pie -- we want to grow the pie, and then we want a slice of the pie.'' The crowd responded with a chant: ``We want pie!''

JOBS SUMMIT

Earlier in the day, Obama made his economic pitch in a more subdued, wonkish environment at a Palm Beach Community College auditorium, surrounded by four Democratic governors, two nationally known executives and a small-business owner from Miami.

Victoria Villalba, president and owner of Miami's Victoria and Associates Career Services, charmed the crowd and earned a round of applause when she noted, ``I'm a small-business owner and I'm not Joe the Plumber!''

Republicans mocked the campaign's ''jobs summit'' as Obama's ``spending summit.''

''When Americans are hurting, Barack Obama's plan to take more and more money from pocketbooks and hand it over to mismanaged government budgets is not the solution -- it's the problem,'' said McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds.

While the Republican Party is leading in absentee ballot requests, the Obama campaign is aiming to parlay the clamor for early voting and a surge in Democratic registration into its own reserve.

''I'm very interested in getting Senator McCain back here,'' said Broward Republican Chairman Chip LaMarca, referring to a Democratic advantage so far in early voting. "I'd be more uncomfortable if there wasn't a presidential candidate in the state. I don't think the excitement will last.''

The crowd at the downtown Miami rally, pressed against barricades to get as close to the history-making Obama as they could. Many people didn't make it inside the park because of the long wait to get through security, a campaign spokesman said. Downtown skyscrapers and a huge American flag fluttering in the bay breeze surrounded the sea of people. Parents hoisted young children on their shoulders for a glimpse of Obama embracing his wife, Michelle.

''It's like an exclamation point to have an event like this,'' said Miami lawyer Marlon Hill, who has been helping the campaign raise money to reach out to black voters. "This trip has turned up the volume and served as an inspiring and emotional reminder of how important the voices of Florida voters are.''

Lynnette Astwood, 61, took a half-day off work so she could witness ``history.''

''I was active in the later part of the civil rights movement,'' said Astwood, who was wearing a ''Women for Obama/Biden'' button. ``To be able to see this in my lifetime is wonderful.''

Before the rally, Obama made his first foray into one of South Florida's black neighborhoods, ducking into a campaign office and barbershop in Fort Lauderdale. Obama was mobbed at both places, as admirers snapped cellphone pictures, one man shouting to him, ``Martin Luther King, you're looking at the dream.''

In a nod to South Florida's large Jewish community, Obama also made a surprise stop at the Deli Den in Hollywood, ordering smoked salmon, bagels and whitefish from the counter as well as what he called black-and-white ''unity'' cookies.

Obama missed no opportunity to urge voters to hurry to the polls. At rallies in Tampa, Orlando and Miami over the past two days, volunteers wielding clipboards and leaflets directed voters to the nearest early voting locations.

Even as Obama dropped into the barbershop, he urged the owner to help get out the vote: "Anybody who comes in and sits in that chair, you tell 'em. No excuses, no excuses.''

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