ORLANDO, FLA. — WAYNE ISENBLETTER, an industrial painter, has never voted. But, with two children to feed and no steady work, this year will be different: He is supporting Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton for president.
"How many more years can I stay unemployed?," asks Mr. Isenbletter, who occasionally works on the shuttle pads at Cape Kennedy. "I've made maybe $14,000 in the last two years."
Thousands of people in Florida are in similar situations, and many of them turned out along palm-lined streets and at sun-soaked rallies here this week to cheer Governor Clinton's bus caravan. (Clinton's foreign-policy team, Page 9.)
The strong, enthusiastic support for Clinton and his economic message in Florida is being fueled by a statewide unemployment rate that has climbed from 6 percent to nearly 9 percent since President Bush took office.
Hard times are rapidly, and perhaps decisively, changing the political climate of the Sunshine State.
In an 11-bus motorcade rolling from Daytona Beach to Orlando to Leesburg to Ocala to Gainesville, the governor and his running mate, Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee, heard a stream of encouraging political news in this usually Republican stronghold.
From Washington they heard that the House and Senate had overturned, for the first time, a veto by President Bush. It was thrilling news for the campaign, which had made the vetoed cable-TV bill, designed to re-regulate the industry, a populist issue against Mr. Bush and the cable monopolies.
From Boston they heard that John P. White, former issues director for Ross Perot and the author of Mr. Perot's economic plan, was throwing his support to the Clinton-Gore ticket.
"I believe that a Clinton presidency will achieve for the country the essential combination of economic growth, good jobs, and long-term fiscal strength," he says.
Mr. White called Clinton's economic plan "excellent."
Here in Florida they heard from people like Greg Farmer, the Florida secretary of commerce, who told the Monitor: "I think we're going to carry Florida for the first time since 1976."
Stephen Gildner, a Bush supporter who attended a Clinton rally in Orlando out of curiosity, admits the race here is close. "People are angry around here," says Mr. Gildner, an electrical engineer.
The polls in Florida are split. One recent survey showed Bush in the lead, while another put Clinton out in front.
What surprises political analysts is that just four weeks before election day, the Clinton-Gore team feels confident enough to spend 36 valuable hours in Florida, where no Democrat has run well in 16 years.
If the Democrats capture this state, the nation's fourth-largest, the Republicans' entire Southern strategy could be undermined.
At least four important forces appear to be driving voters into Democratic arms:
* First, Republicans have lost the defense issue, which is ordinarily powerful in Florida, as it is across the pro-military South. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the issue has lost its saliency.
* Second, the economy has soured, and Bush seems ineffective to many voters here.
Senator Gore charges that the White House is "out of touch with the working people in this country."
* Third, Bush damaged himself, particularly with millions of women voters, with the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the United States Supreme Court and the related issue of abortion. A woman from Clearwater, Fla., who asked to be identified only as "Sue," said after attending a Clinton rally:
"The nomination of Clarence Thomas tilted Bush too far to the right. And the convention certainly confirmed that to me. I believe the Republicans have become a party of exclusion."
* Fourth, many voters believe that with Clinton and Gore, a pair of Southern Baptists, Democrats have turned the party back toward its traditional center.
This has attracted virtually the entire Southern Democratic leadership to their sides, such as Gov. Zell Miller of Georgia and Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, two Democrats who traveled with Clinton on his two-day bus tour here.
In Orlando, Gov. Lawton Chiles (D) of Florida observed: "You see us all now fighting to get on the platform" with the party's nominees. Governor Chiles, whose own ratings have slumped, jokes that Clinton is so popular, "he's going to pull me up."
Governor Miller told the Monitor that in next-door Georgia, and elsewhere in the South, support for Clinton and Gore has begun to jell:
"You've got the right set of candidates, and you've got the right message," Miller says.
But Miller predicts "a hard-fought battle" across Dixie, because the Republicans will not just fade away.
"They are not going to go gently into the night," he predicts.