GOP Rallies Floridians

Party leaders gave a pep rally for the Florida delegation attending the Republican National Convention (search) on Monday, energizing the crowd with a plea to turn out the vote and avoid another nail-biting margin like the one in the 2000 presidential election.

“We’re down to the final quarter of this game and as you know the polls are predicting a very close election, and if anyone knows close, it’s the state of Florida,” Maria Cino, Republican National Committee (search) deputy chairwoman, told delegates at a kickoff breakfast. “Every team is made up of good players with a deep and talented bench. Each and every one of you are part of that team.”

As the representatives of the ultimate swing state, delegates from Florida merited several high-level speakers to their welcome breakfast, including Bush-Cheney campaign chairman Mark Racicot (search) and White House Counsel Albert Gonzales. After bacon and eggs at the Hilton, the delegates acknowledged that Florida -- with its 27 electoral votes -- would be a big win for either campaign. Delegates conceded the race will be close, but expressed optimism that Bush would win Florida again, and by a wider margin.

“I think we’re motivated to get the vote out so it’s not as close as it was last time,” said Florida delegate George Jirotka, who described himself as "cautiously optimistic" about a Bush victory.

“I’ve never seen a larger turnout of grassroots,” said David Storck, another Sunshine State delegate.

“We got a great ground operation,” Mark Guzzetta, a Florida delegate from Boca Raton, told The “state party people are doing a good job when it comes to turning out the vote … we’re just energized.”

Cino outlined some of the specific grassroots activities the Republican Party will be engaging in throughout the state. She said the GOP has been working to grow the party and has set a goal of registering nearly 250,000 new Republicans before the Nov. 2 election. The party is also emphasizing efforts to target Republican voters who might otherwise stay at home.

But Democrats have also been very motivated in the Sunshine State. They too have launched a major voter registration drive and are using a rallying cry focused on their defeat in 2000 to register new voters and encourage volunteers to knock on doors.

According to the Florida Department of State (search), Democrats are well ahead of Republicans in their efforts. From Feb. 9 through Aug. 2, Democrats added 149,861 registered voters while Republicans boosted their numbers by 118,137. Democrats also maintain an overall lead in the state with 4 million-plus registered voters compared to 3.7 million for the GOP.

Each campaign has dozens of paid staffers working in the state, as well as thousands of volunteers.

“This is going to be [a] very challenging and very difficult contest over the next 65 days … you cannot tire and you must inspire those around us as well,” Racicot said, trying to rally the delegates.

Delegates said a range of reasons is motivating them, including tax cuts and other economic policies, the War on Terror and Bush’s “pro-family” social agenda. They did not cite Florida-specific issues, but said that the importance of the campaign could not be underestimated. Storck said that he is concerned that “a way of life is changing.”

Adding another reason to get involved in the campaign, Rose Marie Cossick, a delegate from Hollywood, Fla., said the negative campaign of the Democrats will draw voters to the GOP.

“They call us negative, but they’ve been a campaign of hate,” she said.

For his part, Gonzales called on Hispanics, one of Florida's most important demographic groups, to show support for the president.

“If I could choose one person to fight for my community … it would be George W. Bush. … He understands our community,” he said.

Bush and allies Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania are backing former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez (search), a Hispanic, in the state's Republican primary, which takes place on Tuesday. But a Martinez victory is far from guaranteed as former Rep. Bill McCollum (search), a counterterrorism expert, is running hard against Martinez in a race that is expected to go down to the wire.

Despite all the political activity in the state, or perhaps because of it, recent polls show the presidential race is a dead heat. A Research 2000 poll, conducted Aug. 23-25 for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and the Jacksonville Times-Union found Bush up by one point, 47-46 percent, in the poll of 400 likely voters. The margin of error is 5 percentage points.