County switches sides in selecting Bush

Hernando's Republican Executive Committee says devotion to gathering the support of undecided Democrats paid off.

Published November 4, 2004

BROOKSVILLE - Al Gore beat George W. Bush by 1,998 in Hernando County four years ago. On Tuesday, President Bush won here, defeating Democrat Sen. John Kerry by 5,326 votes.

The result makes Hernando one of five Florida counties that went for Democrat Gore in 2000, but for Republican Bush in 2004. The others were Pasco, Pinellas, Flagler and Osceola. By comparison, Kerry failed to win any counties that were in the Republican column four years ago.

According to county Republican Executive Committee chairwoman Ana Trinque, the chief issue for voters today is safety and security, everything else is incidental.

In Bush, voters saw a man committed to fighting terrorists abroad so that America does not become like Northern Ireland or Israel, where partisan bombings and other acts of violence are common, Trinque said.

In contrast to Bush's steely resolve, she said Kerry came across to the majority of county voters as indecisive and prone to appease other nations while compromising American interests.

"Kerry was not the right man to defend this nation at this moment in time," Trinque said.

But to gain their victory, local Republicans leaders relied not only on voter sentiment. To their already robust base, they added many Democrat voters in Hernando who had been identified by the Republican National Committee as likely to lean toward Bush.

Trinque said the committee was provided with a list of names and coached on how to woo these voters by state party workers. E-mails were sent out, phone calls made and potential Democratic defectors encouraged to volunteer for local Republican events.

"We were persistent right up to the bitter end," she said.

On Monday, the day before the election, the Republican Party of Florida issued a press release that listed the names of 527 state Democrats who had come out in support of Bush. The number was symbolic, Bush took Florida from Gore in 2000 by 527 votes.

Several Hernando County residents were on the list, including Samuel Ryan Pearson, a 26-year-old Brooksville resident who works in construction. According to officials records, he is a registered Democrat.

"John Kerry tends to flip-flop on issues," Pearson said in a phone interview Wednesday, offering up a standard Republican critique of the senator. "He doesn't seem to have any morals, whereas George Bush is a steadfast leader."

Support for Bush apparently did not translate into a winning margin in Hernando for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mel Martinez, who was the victor statewide but lost here to Democrat Betty Castor by 3,904 votes.

It's possible, Trinque said, that Democrats who voted for Bush did not vote for Martinez. Also, Trinque said, she knew of several Republicans who were supporters of Martinez's primary opponent, Bill McCollum, a Hernando native.

These Republicans could not back Martinez, who had bested McCollum in a bitter contest, or bring themselves to support Castor, so they cast no votes in the Senate race, Trinque said.

The explanation is plausible given the numbers. In the presidential contest, 78,368 voters cast ballots. In the Senate race, only 74,812 did so.

While internal struggles in the county Democratic Executive Committee hurt early pro-Kerry efforts, intervention by state and national party workers had smoothed things out in the final stretch, said DEC member and Democratic activist Steve Zeledon.

In fact, the local Democratic machine was as energized, organized and committed as it has ever been, Zeledon said, and succeeded in doubling turnout in several key voting precincts.

But it was not enough.

"I'm afraid that more than half our voting citizens are ignorant," Zeledon said. "They want to stay under the control of a dump truck full of neoconservatives that has George W. Bush as its hood ornament."

Zeledon said there was no point being mealy mouthed now that the election is over and took aim at some area churches whose pastors, he said, had urged congregants to go out and vote for a God-fearing man, presumably Bush.

"They did not mention that the Ayatollah of Iran is a God-fearing man also," Zeledon said.

As he did four years ago, third party presidential contender Ralph Nader failed to get enough votes Tuesday in Hernando to alter the outcome in the county. Nader received 1,501 Hernando votes in 2000 and 508 in 2004.

Staff writer Adam C. Smith contributed to this story. Will Van Sant can be reached at 754-6127 or vansant@sptimes.com