Incredible as it seems, the 2004 Presidential race could again come down to a handful of votes in Florida. An Aug. 20-22 Gallup Poll showed a statistical dead heat, with President Bush at 48%, Democrat John Kerry at 46%, and Sunshine Spoiler Ralph Nader, who's on the ballot on the Reform Party line, tallying 2%.
With Florida's 27 electoral votes up for grabs, both sides are pulling out all the stops. "Turnout is the election story in Florida," says University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus. "The parties are using every known interpersonal skill and technological device."
The Bush campaign is courting voters in traditional GOP strongholds: South Florida's Cuban-American enclaves and the Panhandle, with its rich trove of fundamentalist Christians and veterans. By contrast, Kerry's forces, which include the liberal turnout group America Coming Together (ACT) and others, are signing up voters among the state's burgeoning minority populations -- African Americans, Haitians, Jamaicans, and Puerto Ricans.
So who's grinding it out best on the ground? According to the Florida State Dept., the GOP has added nearly 275,000 new voters since 2000 -- 12,000 more than the 263,000 the Dems have picked up. But in total voters, the GOP still trails.
The two turnout machines are braced for a massive push in the campaign's final weeks. The heart of the fight lies in the Orlando-to-Tampa corridor linked by Interstate 4. Bush won GOP-leaning Tampa by two percentage points in 2000, while Gore took nearby St. Petersburg by the same two-point margin. And Orlando is fickle: Gore grabbed more votes in the city in 2000, but Governor Jeb Bush beat his Democratic opponent there in 2002.
The ground war can be tough. Every afternoon at 2:30, four vans bearing canvassers, each of whom is paid between $8 and $10 per hour and wears a bright red-and-yellow T-shirt, sets out from ACT's Tampa headquarters. Using past voting records, census data, and polling numbers, they target minorities, young adults, and the working poor. San Franciscan Elizabeth Mauldin, 23, is typical: She toils for ACT six hours a day, six days a week in search of undecideds willing to talk about health care and jobs. When she knocks on a door, a specially programmed PalmPilot tells her if the occupant identifies with a party or has voted in the past. By law, she can't advocate for Kerry or against Bush. Instead, she decries how the new Bush-backed Medicare drug benefit "has brought drug companies a windfall."
Things are just as tough for real estate agent Kathy Prichard and recent college grad Ricardo Rodriguez, who walked Precinct 562, just north of Clearwater, for Bush on Aug. 21 in 95-degree heat. It took an hour to hit eight houses. They chatted up one Bush supporter and one swing voter -- and one man shut the door in their faces. But they hit pay dirt when small-business owner Doug Weaver said he was pro-life, pro-Bush, and might even be willing to do some canvassing.
Florida is so competitive that some vote hunters are starting to bump into each other. One day in August, a Bush phone-bank caller in Tampa dialed a woman who was working the phones for Kerry. Oops. Despite such crossups, the voter mobilization campaign in Florida -- and across the U.S. -- will grow more intense as Nov. 2 draws near. Both sides know victory depends on it.
By Paula Dwyer in Washington, Lorraine Woellert in Tampa, and Alexandra Starr in Fort Lauderdale