Florida Landscape Changed Since '00

Plenty has changed in Florida since the days of dimpled chads and disputed ballots, much of it in President Bush's favor. Brother Jeb easily won re-election as governor in 2002, and the Republican Party increased its ranks. The economy has shown signs of improvement, with more than a quarter-million new jobs.

But the narrow advantage the GOP incumbent carried into the election year seems to have evaporated, at least for now, as Florida voters of all political stripes expressed dismay over the war in Iraq.

The race is as close as it was four years ago, when a mere 537 votes tipped the state and the presidency to Bush.

Since then, the capital of close elections has grown by more than 1 million, mostly Democratic-leaning Hispanics and blacks as well as conservative whites drawn by Florida's warm temperatures and booming suburbs.

"This may be the most dynamic state in all the 50," said Jeb Bush, who hopes to deliver 17-million-strong Florida to his brother this November.

"We have the largest number of people moving in, the third-highest number of people moving out. We have a pretty high birth rate. We have a lot of young people who are becoming first-time voters. And, we have a lot of people going on to see their Creator," Bush said.

The state's 9.3 million registered voters are a microcosm of America — black, white and brown; immigrants and Southern aristocracy; Panhandle conservatives, Dade County liberals and a growing number of independents; scores of voters driven by single issues such as Fidel Castro's rule in Cuba, Israel's security and, yes, the disputed outcome of the 2000 presidential election.

They will determine whether Bush or Democrat John Kerry (search) gets Florida's 27 electoral votes, a 10th of the total needed to win the White House. It's the largest prize of the battleground states, with each campaign spending more than $10 million in television commercials since March.

What has changed in Florida since 2000? "Everything," Jeb Bush says.

He cites the explosion of exurbs far outside Florida's cities, a magnet for middle- and upper-class Floridians seeking more land, better schools and lower taxes. The phenomena — familiar to Missouri, Minnesota, Arizona and other battleground states — tends to favor the GOP, whose candidates often speak the language of faith and family values.

Mary Gillard of Carrollwood, Fla., listens.

"The opposition talks down the president, but the American people are getting sick of it," she said.

Gillard lives outside Tampa in a typical exurb populated by massive retail stores and chain restaurants whose corporate owners, relying on polls and research techniques that would make a political operative envious, target customers the way campaigns track voters.

Sitting at the bar of an Applebee's restaurant, a staple of exurbia, Gillard expressed skepticism about Iraq while standing by the president.

"I don't think anybody knows whether he was doing it for political reasons," she said. "But look what he brought down. Saddam. Duh."

Elsewhere, voters were less forgiving. "I don't think Bush has done a good job on the war," says Frank Pepine, a 72-year-old Republican from West Palm Beach. The retired New York native voted for Bush four years ago, but says now, "I could go either way."

Juan Perez Maceda, a 77-year-old Miami resident, said he once backed Bush and the war, but now he's torn. "I have to wait a few months to see what is happening in Iraq," he says.

Maceda and other Hispanics make up 17 percent of Florida's population and cast about 11 percent of the state's votes in 2000. About one-third are Cuban-Americans, who typically vote Republican.

The remaining Hispanics often back Democrats — or are more open to persuasion than Cuban-Americans. Jeb Bush, who won the Hispanic vote in 2002, said they are less likely to register and turnout than other voters.

"While that's certainly an important new part of the electorate in our state, if I was asked what's the most important segment of voters, I would say it's the ones most likely to vote — and those would be our senior citizens," he said.

Democrats argue that the population shifts favor Kerry. Of the 730,000 new Florida residents between April 2000 and July 2002, about 46 percent were Hispanic. Another 28 percent were black — a minority group that overwhelmingly votes Democratic, especially in recount-scarred Florida.

Just 21 percent of the new Floridians were white, according to the Census Bureau.

"While the suburban population has grown ... I would argue that demographically, Florida is a more friendly place to Democrats than it was in 2000," said Marcus Jadotte, a deputy campaign manager to Kerry.

But the Hispanic growth doesn't necessarily translate into Democratic votes — or even registered voters. While registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 330,000, the GOP has narrowed the gap since 2000. There are about 1.6 million voters in Florida with no party affiliation, the fastest-growing category.

Kerry has other problems. Voters throughout the state, including Democrats, said they remain unimpressed.

"All I know is he's got a lot of his wife's money behind him," said Democrat Jennifer O'Ryan, who set down a romance novel, "Shotgun Wedding," to talk politics at a McDonald's in Tampa.

Along with Hispanics, the Bush campaign hopes to make inroads among traditionally Democratic Jewish voters by promoting the president's pro-Israel policies.

"It is helping him," Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., said of the White House strategy. He quickly added: "It is not true that the only issue that many Jewish voters will look to is Israel."

Florida's economy could also help Bush. Though the unemployment rate is up slightly, the state gained 266,200 jobs from January 2001 to April 2004. Denied an issue they're exploiting in the jobs-strapped Midwest, Democrats insist that Florida's new jobs are low-paying.

Looking toward Election Day, Republicans acknowledge that memories of the 2000 recount will help drive Democrats. Jeb Bush's job is to rally the state GOP. He breezed to re-election in 2002, and the Bush campaign hopes to copy his get-out-the-vote campaign.

"But you don't transfer" support, the governor said, adding that he is determined to help his brother win Florida.

"I wouldn't be as motivated if it wasn't my brother," the governor confessed. "I hope not to mess up."

There's one other incentive, he said: "Given the experience of 2000, we don't need to be going through that again."