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Florida’s 680-Mile Campaign Trail Diverted by Angst Over Housing

There isn’t only one presidential primary election in Florida today. There are five.

In a state straddling two time zones, Republicans retired around the military bases of the western Panhandle and Southern Baptist church-goers serving sweet iced tea with fried catfish find little culturally in common with Cuban-Americans in Miami’s Little Havana offering spiced pork and plantains 680 miles away.

The precincts around the insurance and banking headquarters of Jacksonville are 320 miles from the American Midwestern retirees sitting on underwater mortgages in Southwest Florida.

Still more Republican voters inhabit a swath of Central Florida suburbs reaching from Tampa on the Gulf Coast to Daytona Beach on the Atlantic Ocean than those living in any of Florida’s other states within a state. And in this swing-voting region -- as in all five Floridas -- the housing bubble’s burst has left financial pain that’s a driving force for voters today.

“The suburban areas are going to be critical again,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “They have been on the roller coaster of the economy. They were with the boom, and they’ve been at the bottom.”

Housing Pain

Twenty-three percent of mortgaged homes in Florida, the fourth-most populous state, are delinquent or foreclosed upon, more than in any other state, according to Jacksonville-based Lender Processing Services. Florida ranks third in the portion of homeowners with underwater mortgages -- with 44 percent of properties valued at less than the loans -- according to Santa Ana, California-based CoreLogic data from the third quarter.

In a state that helped elect President Barack Obama in 2008, home prices declined 22.5 percent from the first quarter of 2009, when he was inaugurated, through the third quarter of 2011, according to the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States index.

Most of the votes in today’s primary will be cast by Republicans 55 and older, according to Brett Doster, a senior campaign adviser for Mitt Romney in Florida.

“The two issues that move voters more than anything else are spending and their concern about the economy,” Doster said of his campaign’s strategy. “We’ve been talking about Romney’s ability to lead in both areas.”

‘I-4 Corridor’

Newt Gingrich has attempted to contrast himself as a devoted conservative and Romney as a wavering moderate, to attract voters along the Interstate-4 corridor of Central Florida and elsewhere, according to Bill McCollum, a former congressman from Orlando and state attorney general who is chairman of Gingrich’s bid in Florida.

“In the I-4 corridor, which is the most important part of the state, it certainly plays,” said McCollum, pointing to the guest on Gingrich’s election-eve tour, Michael Reagan, Ronald Reagan’s son. “This is a fight for the heart and soul of the Republican Party.”

With Florida opinion polls showing Romney, 64, a former Massachusetts governor, increasing his lead over Gingrich, 68, a onetime U.S. House speaker from Georgia, Romney’s campaign advisers are counting on sweeping all five Floridas today.

They have played the regions piece by piece.

Senator John McCain of Arizona carried most of Central Florida in the 2008 Republican presidential primary, beating Romney by 5 percentage points in the state. Romney returned for this year’s campaign courting people, including McCain, to help with constituencies in each corner of the Sunshine State.

‘The American Dream’

Romney campaigned last week with Puerto Rican Governor Luis Fortuno at the warehouse of Lanco Paint Co. in Orlando, a business that began in Puerto Rico. “They are an example of the American dream,” Romney told a large gathering. “Puerto Rican jobs are American jobs.”

Hispanic voters account for 11 percent of Florida’s registered Republicans. Around Orlando that includes a growing community of Puerto Ricans divided in loyalties to the major political parties. Statewide, the Pew Hispanic Center reports, Hispanic voters have become more Democratic than Republican in recent years. Immigrants from Central America also have arrived, presenting a challenge for Republicans campaigning against illegal immigration.

“In Florida, you have to appeal to the broader Hispanic community, with the whole blend of nationalities that is reflected in many parts of the state,” said Mel Martinez, a former Republican U.S. senator from Orlando who served as secretary of Housing and Urban Development for President George W. Bush and chairman of Orlando’s Orange County.

Watch the Tone

Martinez, who arrived in Central Florida at age 15 in the Catholic Charities’ “Pedro Pan” airlift of children fleeing Fidel Castro’s Cuba, is chairman of both Romney’s national campaign advisory council and of JPMorgan Chase & Co. in Florida, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.

In a contest pitting Romney against Gingrich in a debate over returning illegal immigrants to their home nations, leaders such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush have cautioned the candidates about the tone of their rhetoric.

“The important thing is that Romney not come across as someone who is anti-immigrant or anti-Hispanic,” Martinez said, “and I think he’s managed that.”

Romney held a 24-percentage-point advantage over Gingrich among Florida’s Hispanic voters, according to a Jan. 24-26 poll by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times, Miami Herald and other Florida media. The survey, with a margin of error of 3.5 points, showed a 42 percent to 31 percent advantage for Romney among statewide voters.

Little Havana

In Miami’s Little Havana, redolent with the sugar-saturated Cuban coffee sold at sidewalk cafe windows, Romney claims the support of U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a 23-year member of Congress from Miami who was born in Havana.

Ros-Lehtinen campaigned for Romney outside the Casa Marin Restaurant in nearby Hialeah, switching from Spanish to English repeatedly and praising a candidate who “knows the difference between our allies and our enemies -- just like all of you.”

Later, she accompanied Romney inside as guitar players dressed in white and wearing Panama hats serenaded the candidate with “Guantanamera.” He was handed a knife and tongs to serve up lechon, a traditional Cuban whole-roasted suckling pig.

The Mason-Dixon survey has found a 26-point advantage for Romney in South Florida.

New Arrivals

While Cuban-Americans have dominated the Republican vote in Miami-Dade County for four decades, new arrivals from other Latin American nations and younger voters replacing an aging population in Broward and Palm Beach County condominiums have made campaigning more complex, MacManus says.

“There has been this sort of replacement of the old establishment leaders with younger voices,” she said, and that includes younger Cuban-Americans who voted for Obama.

Romney started this year’s campaign with a base in the Southwest corner of Florida’s Gulf Coast, where retirees from Midwestern states have settled in beachfront condos and suburban housing that mushroomed in a near-doubling of Florida’s population since 1980; he carried Lee and Collier counties with 6- and 8-point margins in 2008.

Still, Gingrich has found more support there “than people anticipated,” MacManus said. “Of all the places of the housing-bubble burst, it was worst down there,” she said. “The anger level against Washington is very high, and they see Gingrich as the anti-establishment candidate.”

North Florida Vote

Romney also carried Jacksonville and four counties surrounding it in 2008. With a downtown network of insurance companies and banks and Mayport Naval Air Station on the coast, Jacksonville is more akin to the older cities of Gingrich’s Georgia than metro centers of South and Central Florida.

“A lot of people are positing Jacksonville as pro-Gingrich,” MacManus said. “But you have a lot of big companies up there, you have a military presence. And I think they tend to favor Romney.”

That military presence is potent in the Panhandle, with air bases near Panama City, Fort Walton Beach and Pensacola -- including the Pensacola Naval Air Station where a young McCain learned to fly. McCain carried the three biggest counties in 2008, and has returned this year to rally for Romney.

McCain introduced Romney on Jan. 28 under a cloudless sky at Pensacola’s Fish House, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico where voters crowded on sea-faded patios and terraces for what was billed as a veterans’ rally. Wearing a blue blazer and Navy cap, McCain regaled military families and veterans with jokes about his wild days there.

Helping Local Economy

“When I was a young Navy pilot, I did my best to help the economy here,” said McCain, who wrote in a 1999 memoir of spending “much of my off-duty time” at a legendary Pensacola bar, Trader John’s. “My entire paycheck was always donated to cultural institutions.”

McCain said Romney would “restore this nation’s strength and prestige around the world,” adding that “the Panhandle will probably have a big effect on how this election turns out.”

With 4 million Republicans registered statewide, fewer than 1.5 million are likely to vote this year, Doster said; more than 500,000 already have voted early or absentee. He bases the estimate on a 20 percent turnout in Florida’s 2000 primary and more than 50 percent in 2008, when a property tax amendment on the ballot drove voters to the polls.

The three Panhandle counties have fewer than 300,000 Republicans. Yet MacManus said the communities of retired military and Christian voters tend to vote at high rates. With Florida’s two time zones, winning projections also will wait until the Panhandle reports an hour later today.

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