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    Bay area becomes race's ground zero

    The Tampa Bay area has become a battleground area within a battleground state.

    By ALICIA CALDWELL

    © St. Petersburg Times, published November 3, 2000


    If Florida is essential to winning the presidential campaign, then Tampa Bay is Ground Zero.

    The candidates have visited the area more than ever before. During the past two weeks, they've spent more on the area's television market than any other in the country. And there's more to come before voters go to the polls Tuesday.

    Why so much attention?

    As it turns out, we're a fickle bunch.

    While blocs of votes in Orlando and Miami appear to be locked in, those in the Tampa Bay area are sensitive to issues and image.

    "Florida, and Tampa Bay in particular, is very much what we in the political universe call a persuadable bloc of voters," said Karl Koch, senior political strategist for Al Gore's Florida campaign.

    Jim Kane, editor of the non-partisan Florida Voter Poll, said he would not describe Tampa Bay voters as undecided as much as he would describe them as in flux -- less tied to parties and more issue-driven.

    "The Tampa Bay area has changed considerably over the last 15 years," Kane said. "The voters who have moved in are younger and less partisan. These folks are more in play than voters in Orlando and Miami."

    At stake is Florida's 25 electoral votes. Depending on which poll you believe, it is potentially the state with the largest chunk of votes up for grabs.

    It's no wonder then that Gore has stumped in Florida a dozen times this election season -- including four trips to the Tampa Bay area. Republican George W. Bush has come to the state eight times, with four stops in the Tampa Bay area, and he is set to campaign in Florida again this weekend.

    "I've never seen anything like this," said Koch, who has been active in Florida politics for 12 years. "It just goes to show you how incredibly close Florida is."

    It also should come as little surprise to local television viewers that during the past couple of weeks, the parties have dumped millions of dollars into television advertising -- more in Florida than anywhere else in the country.

    The Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks political spending on TV ads, reports that Bush and Gore and their respective parties focused considerable resources on Florida markets. In the third week of October, each campaign spent nearly $1.6-million on ads, which was the most Gore spent anywhere and the second-most that Bush spent.

    The attention is unprecedented, say those who follow politics.

    "Florida was ignored in '92," said Myrtle Smith-Carroll, a Democratic state and national committeewoman who lives in St. Petersburg. "I am absolutely amazed that it's as tight a race here as it is. I thought George Bush was going to win -- take it for granted."

    Early on, Florida was expected to be a Republican stronghold. And Pinellas, which has voter registration numbers painting it as Republican territory, might leave one with the impression that Bush would have an easy time here.

    Early polling showed Bush doing well in Florida. But then the numbers started shifting, and Tampa Bay became a focal point.

    "It's strange since we didn't see any of them in the primary," said Paul Bedinghaus, head of the Pinellas County Republican Party. "Pinellas County and the Tampa Bay area is definitely ground zero in the presidential election."

    Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political scientist, said the area is a microcosm of Florida, which she believes is reflective of the country at large. It's reasonable to theorize, she said, that as Florida goes so will the rest of the country.

    Hillsborough County, she said, still is heavily Democratic though outlying suburban areas such as Brandon are attracting attention from candidates because residents outside the urban core tend to be more conservative.

    In Pasco, the traditional mix of voters -- with old-guard Democrats populating the eastern part of the county and Republicans in the west -- is shifting. As the fast-growing county matures, the mix becomes more complicated, she said, though Republicans tend to dominate.

    Ted Williams, long called the godfather of Pasco Democratic politics, said he is voting for Bush. The retired property appraiser said he was swayed by what he calls Gore's lack of integrity.

    "I don't know who Al Gore is," Williams said. "He's somebody different every day."

    Williams said that he and others are working informally to support Bush, by calling friends and encouraging them to vote. Volunteer phone banks, he said, largely are a thing of the past. Most of that now is done by professional firms, Williams said.

    Complicated voter bases force candidates to become more sophisticated in reaching people. MacManus said the sheer volume of TV ads that residents have endured in the closing weeks of the elections, haven't, in her estimation, had much effect. And, of course, they are mixed in with ads from other candidates.

    "The thrill of having the front-row seat has passed," she said. "I don't sense that the television ads are moving anybody. I think people are where they are going to be."

    And each candidate is hoping to get Tampa Bay voters to punch ballots in their favor.

    "These are the voters who will most likely decide who will get Florida's 25 electoral votes," said Kane, the pollster. "It's the battleground for the heart and soul of Florida."

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