On a Sunday evening, in this predominantly African-American neighborhood, customers trickle into Atwater Cafeteria. Between the forkfuls of black-eyed peas, bites of pork spareribs, and comments about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers game playing on a small TV against the back wall, the conversation turns to politics.
Lateshia Griffin, who works the cash register and waits on the mismatched tables, doesn't hold much expectation that presidential candidate George W. Bush - now battling Democratic rival Al Gore for the state - will win over many votes here on St. Petersburg's south side. "It wouldn't matter who was running against Bush. Just by the fact that his last name is Bush killed him in this community after what his brother [Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R)] has done in office."
Ms. Griffin was referring to Governor Bush's dissolution of affirmative action, a move that prompted a march on the state capitol and an ongoing lawsuit.
While candidates have been focused on retirees as Florida's chief voting prize, smaller voter blocs, which constitute about 10 percent of the vote, might well swing the election here, political scientists say.
And while it once appeared that Florida was Bush country - with his generally popular younger brother Jeb in the governor's mansion - the state is very much in play as the presidential campaign enters its final stretch. The most recent Mason-Dixon poll shows George W. Bush only two points ahead in Florida, and a Florida Voter poll has Gore ahead by 4 percent. In other words, the race in Florida is a dead heat.
And in a dead heat any bloc of constituents, including African-Americans, could tip the balance for the Sunshine State. "When you have a close election like this, every group [of voters] can claim to be the margin of victory," says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
Many voting blocs
African-Americans, who make up 10 percent of Florida's electorate and overwhelmingly favor Gore, may be one of the most overlooked voting blocs in the Florida race so far. That may be in part because their turnout is difficult to predict.
Gore and Bush have focused their campaign visits on seniors, who make up one-third of expected voters, and the state's 1.2 million independent voters. Bush has also made appearances before Miami's Cuban-American population, which favors him in polls. While 66 percent of Hispanic voters here still favor Bush, that's down from 76 percent two months ago. Hispanics make up 13 percent of Florida's registered voters.
Gore is appealing to seniors with a pumped up Medicare plan and a pledge to protect Social Security. Bush counters with his competing plans that emphasize individual choice, and by punching holes in Gore's integrity.
"If seniors are going to be worried more about Social Security and Medicare, then it works to Gore's advantage," says Tom Carsey, a political scientist at Florida State University in Tallahassee. "But this is a group that also tends to be more conservative about issues such as abortion and integrity, and that may work more in Bush's favor."
Toll on Bush
Not only does Bush need the state's 25 electoral votes to win, but every dollar and day he spends in the Sunshine State is an opportunity lost in other states, Mr. Carsey says. Florida is "as close as he can come to a home-state advantage without it being his home state. His brother is governor here. If he loses Florida, that's not a good sign."
Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes concedes that Florida is a crucial state for Bush, but she shies away from saying that he can't win the presidency without it. "There are all sorts of ways to add up to 270 electoral votes," she says. "But clearly Florida is a key state, and we intend to win it."
The clincher, pundits say, will be who can mobilize supporters to show up at the polls come Nov. 7.
African-Americans have been less consistent than whites in their turnout, a factor that has made party leaders reluctant to rely on their support. In the last presidential race, 50.6 percent of black voters nationally showed up at the polls, versus 56 percent of whites.
But if a flier hanging in Atwater Cafeteria is any indication, the African-American community is pushing to boost turnout. Operation You Vote 2000, sponsored by a consortium of groups including the African-American Voter Research Committee, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and other local groups and churches, is canvassing neighborhoods in St. Petersburg, registering people to vote, telephoning voters, and planning to transport voters to the polls.
Similar movements are going on across Tampa Bay in Hillsborough County.
But even in constituencies that may seem largely unified politically, votes aren't automatic.
Al Cardenas, chairman of Florida's Republican Party, says he doesn't believe that all African-Americans will vote for Gore because they are angry with Bush's brother.
"That's what the Democrat partisan African-American leaders are touting, but I don't think it's typical. Far more minorities have gotten opportunities since Governor Bush has been in office."
Indeed, although the majority of his customers support Gore, Michael Atwater, owner the cafeteria here, campaigned for Jeb Bush. He likes to brag that he met Barbara Bush and that he was referred to as her son with a tan.
"I hope George W. wins," Mr. Atwater says. "Most African-Americans are going to vote Democrat because it's been mentally passed down to you that you are a Democrat. I want improvement. I'm a risk taker."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society