Dems Try to Boost Kerry Support in Florida

Every other week, Janee Murphy gathers up her troops and walks the precincts throughout her home of Hillsborough County, determined to persuade one more voter to the Democratic side.

Murphy, the 33-year-old chairwoman of her county's party organization, said she tells every volunteer to have "two pairs of tennis shoes and a fire in the belly." Her ranks have grown from five volunteers to about 50, but with an election five months away, she's taking nothing for granted.

"The only way we're going to win this is to reach out and knock on every single door," she said.

Party activists from throughout the state are set to huddle June 11-13 in Hollywood to discuss ways to build momentum for the fall elections at the annual Jefferson-Jackson gala. The event, featuring North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (search), represents one of the largest party meetings before the fall elections.

Scott Maddox, the state party's chairman, said the weekend serves as a kickoff for Democrats looking to help presidential candidate John Kerry (search) carry Florida, where polls show another tight contest. President Bush defeated Al Gore by 537 votes in 2000 after recounts in some counties were stopped by the U.S. Supreme Court after 36 days.

"We want to get our people fired up and raise some money to bring to bear for the election this fall," said Maddox. The three-day event, expected to exceed a previous record of $400,000, will feature training sessions, door-knocking in Miami neighborhoods, rallies and a gala event headlined by Edwards, who challenged Kerry for the nomination.

It comes as both presidential campaigns are paying close attention to the state, which holds 27 electoral votes in the November election.

Bush's re-election campaign in Florida, chaired by his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush (search), has mounted a thorough grass-roots operation with more than 50,000 volunteers in the state, co-chairs in each of the state's 67 counties and precincts captains in more than 80 percent of the voting districts. The campaign expects to attract about 75,000 volunteers while building outreach to coalitions of black, Hispanic and women voters.

"It's safe to say there has never been anything like this on a presidential campaign," said Bush campaign spokesman Reed Dickens.

Starting this weekend, the Bush campaign was conducting a "test drive" of its get-out-the-vote operation it will employ in November. Volunteers will make hundreds of thousands of phone calls and knock on tens of thousands of doors. The effort in Florida is modeled after Jeb Bush's convincing re-election win over Democrat Bill McBride in 2002.

"What we want to do in '04 in the presidential election is mimic what Jeb Bush did in his election," Dickens said.

Kerry, meanwhile, has dispatched about a dozen organizers to Florida and has the help of more than 12,000 volunteers. The campaign is expected to soon name a senior staff and open a campaign headquarters.

"We are going to have the most aggressive and organized ground game in the history of Florida politics," said Kerry spokesman Mark Kornblau.

The Democrats will also add to the mix supporters from the Democratic National Committee. Independent, Democratic-leaning groups such as Americans Coming Together, meanwhile, are adding ground troops to help register voters in Florida and other battleground states.

"I believe there is a huge grass-roots out there like no candidate has had in a long time," said Terrie Brady, former chairwoman of the state party.

For Murphy, door knocking and hours at phone banks are part of the recipe to help Kerry carry the Tampa Bay region, which remains one the most competitive in the country with its history of siding with the presidential victor.

Murphy is mindful of the difficulties Democrats have faced in recent years, so she wants to use these months to establish a "well-oiled machine" of volunteers who will be available to help the party in state and federal races, this year and going forward.

"No more talking about what we've done in the past," she said. "We've got to produce."