In Florida, an all-out race already

Months before Nov. 2, state polls show Bush and Kerry neck and neck.

"Have you registered and convinced 537 people on how important their vote is yet?" the hand-lettered sign exhorts assembled union workers and volunteers at 2700 Biscayne Boulevard.

No one needs to explain that number - the difference in votes between George Bush and Al Gore in Florida in 2000 - here at the Miami headquarters of the Democratic organization America Coming Together. The canvassers - from the new group Caribbean Power Vote and Moveon.org - know they have a tough, hot day ahead of them, knocking on doors in Little Haiti and Coral Gables, looking for new voters to register, and identifying people's top issues.

"They tell us, 'No matter what, Bush will steal my vote, I won't vote until there's a change,' " says Rose Micheline Assinthe, a nursing assistant originally from Haiti, on loan from her union to work as a canvasser. "I tell them, in Creole, 'We need to focus on fraud, but don't look backward. If you want Bush out, you must vote.' "

Across town, another hand- lettered sign on the door of a locked office building announces that it's "Super Saturday," with a number to call to be let in. Inside, it's a scene repeated on this day across the state - Bush campaign volunteers on the phone, calling other Republicans and getting them to sign on as volunteers too. As election day approaches, these people will also be out canvassing, signing up new voters, as well as working the phones and e-mail, making sure Bush voters turn out.

There are still 161 days to go until Nov. 2, but the volunteers and paid workers, some from other states, are multiplying by the day in this battleground called Florida - getting ready to burst forth in the fall like the cicadas to the north.

If there's one thing every activist here has in common, it's that seared memory of 2000, when Bush won the state, and thus the election, by just 537 votes. It has given both presidential campaigns and their unaffiliated support networks, like America Coming Together, a concrete incentive to go to the ends of the earth - or at least the state - for every possible vote.

"In my 15 years in politics, I've never seen anything on this scale," says John Hennelly, state campaign director for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). "To win Florida, you have to do everything and do everything well."

Gains on both sides

To date, statewide polls give no one a reason to relax. The latest, taken May 17 to 19 by American Research Group, shows President Bush at 47 percent, Democrat John Kerry at 46 percent, and Ralph Nader at 3 percent. Overall, Democratic registration is ahead of Republican, 44 percent versus 40 percent, but since 2000, Republicans have outpaced Democrats in new registrations.

The stakes, in fact, are higher than they were in 2000; after the latest census, Florida has 27 electoral votes, up from the 25 it had in the past election. But for Bush, Florida is do-or-die, analysts say. "Kerry could lose Florida and still be president," says Brad Coker, president of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research. "There's no way to do the math with Bush losing Florida."

Working in Bush's favor is that the state's economy is doing well, overall. Last Saturday, in his weekly radio address, the president touted job growth numbers in key electoral states, including Florida. The state has also shown steady Republican gains in its elected offices, including local government and the state legislature. Having his brother in the governor's office also remains important, but not as much as in 2000. This time, analysts say, the voters know George W. and he has his presidential record to run on.

Above all, a push for turnout

In the end, though, big-picture atmospherics pale in importance next to the massive turnout operation under way. Four years ago, some black voters said they were turned away from polling places, and the African-American community is still angry. Black turnout is vital for Kerry, who polls at 90 percent here in that category. Among Latinos, voter sympathies are much more fluid, as their population evolves: Second- and third-generation Cuban-Americans are less conservative than their elders; more non-Cuban Latinos are coming into the state, and they're harder to pigeonhole.

Bush's campaign, like the Kerry team, will concede no ground to any voter bloc. Lois Jones, a volunteer coordinator working at a Super Saturday phone bank in Miami, is originally from Jamaica, and she rejects the idea that immigrants would naturally incline toward the Democrats. "Jamaicans are very conservative," she says. "We believe in working. We're religious. We don't believe in handouts."

A new retiree, Ms. Jones is ready to give her all to Bush. "People are angry," she says, recalling the enthusiasm she found in the parking lot at Home Depot the other day as she handed out Bush-Cheney bumper stickers. "I'll talk to anybody. When I get in campaign mode, that's where I stay."

Tally of progress

At the end of the day, both camps are exhausted as they review what they've achieved.

Michelle Azel, Miami field director for Bush-Cheney, said her goal for the county was 5,000 calls from the three phone banks she had going.

Before this day, statewide, the Bush-Cheney campaign had already lined up more than 30,000 volunteers, third only to Ohio and California, says Alberto Martinez, Bush-Cheney communications director for Florida.

Back at ACT headquarters on Biscayne Boulevard, John Hennelly has his own numbers to report: Eighteen people knocked on 597 doors, talked to 411 people, and registered 19 voters. That's a lot of work for just 19 people, he agrees, adding that each person will be contacted nine more times, by phone, mail, or in person. But it's worth it, he says, because now they know: Every vote matters.

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