By ADAM C. SMITH
Democrats are making a must-win state tough territory for the president.
President Bush's prospects in Florida are looking increasingly shaky.
Barely 80 days before election day, signs abound that Democrats are outperforming Republicans in the state Bush virtually has to win to gain another term in the White House.
Republicans had vowed an unprecedented voter registration program, but Democrats are far outpacing them in registration gains.
Democrats have far more operatives on the ground, thanks largely to well-funded liberal organizations aggressively working to mobilize John Kerry supporters.
The past two statewide polls show the Massachusetts senator leading by 6 or 7 percentage points, and, along with other recent polls, point to a number of other ominous signs for the president.
Though the Bush-Cheney campaign boasts an unprecedented grass-roots effort, some Republicans are quietly fretting. Not only does Bush look vulnerable in must-win Florida, they say, at the very least he could be forced to divert resources here that may be needed elsewhere.
"Not only is Florida becoming a problem for the campaign but it could make some Southern border states that are usually safely Republican slip into competitive mode in the last two to three weeks of the campaign," said InsiderAdvantage pollster Matt Towery, a former strategist for Newt Gingrich. "If Bush loses Florida, it's lights out."
Should Florida's 27 electoral votes move to the Democratic column, the electoral math would look bleak for Bush. He would have to win several states he lost in 2000.
An Aug. 5-10 Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday showed 47 percent of Florida voters backed Kerry, 41 percent Bush and 4 percent independent candidate Ralph Nader. The same poll had Bush and Kerry tied in Florida six weeks ago. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Other Quinnipiac findings suggest potentially more problems for Bush: 54 percent of voters disapproved of the president's job performance; only one in three independent voters backed Bush; among women, Kerry led by 14 percentage points; among men Bush led by 2 percentage points.
In the virtually tied Florida election of 2000, exit polls showed Bush enjoyed a 26 point advantage over Al Gore among male Florida voters; they essentially tied among independent voters.
At this point in 2000, Gore was just begining to focus on Florida. This year, Democrats have been pouring money into the state for months. Kerry has spent 13 days in the state since March; Bush has spent eight since January.
The Kerry campaign and state and national Democratic parties have some 45 paid staffers in the state; by next week they will have about 60. By the end of next month they will have 125.
Seven Kerry campaign offices are now open - including in Tampa and Pinellas Park - and four more will be open within two weeks.
Arguably the most crucial piece of the Kerry Florida operation, though, is not even working with the campaign.
Every day across the state, a host of independent groups legally barred from coordinating with the Kerry campaign are paying hundreds of people to register, target and mobilize anti-Bush voters. One group, Tampa-based America Coming Together, has about 300 paid staffers working in Florida. By Nov. 2, they will have spent an estimated $10-million here.
Their work has produced tangible results: Through June, Democrats added 129,423 voters to their roll, compared to 75,132 for Republicans and 122,769 registered to neither party.
"Yes, the Democrats are working hard. So are we," said Gov. Jeb Bush, who in an e-mail dismissed the suggestion that his brother is vulnerable in Florida. "Our base is mobilized. I have never seen the kind of support that the President received (while campaigning in Florida) on Tuesday. 22,000 in the rain in Panama City, thousands of people lining the roads, etc. We have a great end strategy to turn out our vote."
In a sign of how hard-fought Florida is proving to be, the president is expected to return to the state before the Republican National Convention starts Aug. 30 and come back soon afterward. Kerry is expected to campaign in the Orlando area before the GOP convention.
Republicans have been organizing an army of volunteers for about 10 months and count more than 68,000 Bush-Cheney volunteers in Florida.
Between the campaign and state and national GOP, about 65 paid staffers are working in Florida. That number will double, and possibly triple, after the convention.
Brett Doster, who heads the re-election effort in Florida, counted 20 campaign offices across Florida and said 10 more will open within two weeks.
"We are definitely putting the necessary resources on the ground," said Doster, who acknowledged Republicans had not anticipated how much money the independent groups would pour into Florida.
He questioned how effectively those groups would be able to turn out their newly registered voters and compete with the Bush-Cheney grass-roots operation.
With a heavy emphasis on Christian conservatives and rural voters, the Bush-Cheney campaign aims to boost Republican turnout from under 73.6 percent statewide in 2000 to better than 80 percent in November.
Staff writer Joni James contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 727 893-8241.[Last modified August 13, 2004, 00:57:24]