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Cover Story

Why the 2012 election could all come down to Florida

The nation's premier swing state, younger and more diverse than you think, will be vital in deciding who wins the White House. Along the way, Florida could determine the GOP primary, too. 

By Staff writer, Photos by Melanie Stetson FreemanStaff photographer / December 18, 2011

This is the cover story in the Dec. 19 weekly edition of The Christian Science Monitor

Nancy Stahl illustration

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Naples, Florida

It's a sunny Saturday in Cambier Park, the heart of Naples, on Florida's west coast, and local tea party activists are doing something unusual: They're holding a Thanksgiving food drive to benefit a local homeless shelter and food pantry.

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The red-meat rhetoric is on hold. American flags abound amid swaying palm trees. "Gratitude not attitude," a sign says. That holiday spirit is what drew in Adam Sandy, who had never attended a tea party event before.

"I felt the tea party was too polarizing," says Mr. Sandy, who came with his tea partyer brother and a shopping bag full of food to donate. "It's good they're doing something positive."

Sandy is probably a rarity among the roughly 200 people here – an Obama voter in 2008. He says, even as a registered Republican, he could still vote to reelect President Obama next year. But for now, he likes libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas in the Florida Republican primary on Jan. 31. He supported Mr. Obama in 2008 because of his "message of unity" and his promise of economic solutions, but now he thinks "maybe we don't need government to create jobs."

And while Sandy is part of a cohort that leans Democratic – he's young (age 26) and college-educated – he's also unemployed and owes $30,000 in student loans. So he's just the kind of young voter the Republicans believe they can win next year on their way to retaking Florida, where unemployment remains high – 10.3 percent in October – and the home foreclosure rate is among the highest in the country. In 2008, Obama won Florida by fewer than three percentage points.

Welcome to the biggest, most diverse battleground state in presidential politics, where every demographic group and, lest we forget, every vote matters. It's been 11 years since the days of "hanging chads" and Bush versus Gore, when the Republican governor of Texas and the Democratic vice president came closer to an exact tie in the final deciding state than anyone dreamed possible.

In 2012, Florida will be a more valuable prize than ever. This time, 29 electoral votes are at stake, up from 25 in 2000, of the 270 needed for victory. For the Republican nominee, Florida is a must-win – thus the choice of Tampa for the GOP convention next August. For Obama, winning without Florida will be difficult but doable. He has electoral votes to burn from the 365 he won in '08.

For political junkies, Florida is a double paradise – a swing state in the general election and potential kingmaker with its early Republican primary. In 2008, Sunshine State Republicans dealt former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney a mortal blow when they voted for Arizona Sen. John McCain, the eventual nominee, in their primary.

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