HE has virtually no opposition in tomorrow's Florida primary, but President Clinton is campaigning in the Sunshine State as if his political life depended on it.
With Sen. Bob Dole expected to win the GOP primary race here, the focus among activists in both parties has already shifted to the general election in November. For the Democrats, Florida is emerging as a key state if Mr. Clinton is to get a second term: The president can no longer count on winning as many of the Southern and Western states that sent him to the White House in 1992.
Clinton lost Florida to George Bush in 1992, although by fewer than two percentage points. To win the state this time, the fourth-largest electoral pool in the nation, the president has devised a strategy that is neither rocket science nor secret: He hopes to put together a majority by appealing to retirees on the Medicare issue.
In Florida, where voters over age 60 cast about 40 percent of the vote, Clinton has positioned himself as the defender of senior citizens by declaring that the GOP was preparing to "stick it" to them through changes in the federal health-insurance programs. Republicans call this "Medi-scare," but for many seniors this scare tactic is working.
"The Republicans are not considering human beings, only dollars and cents," says 79-year-old Lillian Beck of Miami Beach. "I don't expect everything for nothing, but elderly people should be appreciated for their past work."
These are the voices that get the attention of Republican leaders in the state. "If there is any danger at all that the Republicans can lose Florida, then Bill Clinton will be president," says Randy Enright, executive director of the Florida Republican Party. "This state has such a Republican tilt, that if we get in trouble here, we're in trouble all over."
A poll released Friday indicates that in a contest with Senator Dole, the presumptive GOP nominee, Clinton could compete in Florida: 45 percent of the vote compared with 40 percent for Dole. The Mason-Dixon Poll showed 15 percent of voters are undecided.
"The Medicare issue is tailor-made for Bill Clinton," says a senior adviser to the Clinton campaign. "Thanks to [House Speaker] Newt Gingrich and company, the president's best allies in trying to win Florida are actually his enemies."
South Florida, for example, where one in seven residents receives Medicare assistance, might be affected more than anywhere else in the nation by the Republican plan to reform it. Overall, about $8.3 billion - or 3 percent - of the $270 billion Republicans hope to save would come from Dade and Broward counties.
Even his harshest critics cannot deny that the president is responsible for such decisions as bringing Florida the Summit of the Americas and the US military's Southern command; restoring Jean-Bertrand Aristide to his post as president of Haiti; stabilizing the influx of Cuban rafters; and appointing three Miami natives to serve in his Cabinet.
Clinton is already running news-clip-style commercials here, featuring his State of the Union address where he speaks of hope, work, and community. Dole, too, is airing television ads depicting him as a presidential figure.
While Republicans are beginning to unite around Dole, they are uneasy about a one-on-one showdown with Clinton. "I'm getting the impression that we don't have a winning ticket yet," says Ray Castillo, a GOP consultant. Clinton, he says, "has a vision. He has the looks, the smile. We don't have a candidate with that kind of charisma."