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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Campaigns turn attention to Florida's black voters

Both presidential campaigns are gearing up to compete for the support of Florida's black voters, a group whose participation could help swing the election.

State Sen. Frederica Wilson had a question for Barack Obama the last time he was in Miami and gave a speech at a posh, downtown hotel: When was he coming to ``the hood?''

The Democratic presidential candidate promised to campaign in Miami several times before November, including at least one stop in the black community.

But in a historic presidential election that could turn on race, outreach to African-American voters in Florida is only now getting under way.

Obama and GOP rival John McCain will both address predominantly black audiences at the National Urban League convention in Orlando this week. Obama's newest campaign office is in the heart of Broward's black community, on Sistrunk Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. Last week, his wife huddled privately with about 30 black leaders in Miami before a fundraiser.

Obama's challenge is to mobilize a community whose participation typically lags behind the overall turnout -- in a state he has spent little time in. McCain needs to siphon off some of the black vote, while driving loyal seniors and veterans to the polls in droves.

In the meeting with Michelle Obama, Wilson made a pitch for a campaign rally at the AmericanAirlines Arena, with participants coming on foot and via Metrorail from predominantly black Overtown.

'People want to be able to say, `I went to see Barack Obama,' '' Wilson said. ``They want to feel included.''

In a state as big and diverse as Florida, presidential candidates face competing demands from a slew of constituencies, including Hispanics, Jews, veterans, college students and rural voters.

African Americans make up at least 12 percent of the Florida electorate, but black turnout in the 2004 election was only 70 percent, about five percentage points lower than the overall turnout.

DIFFERENT ELECTION?

Obama supporters say this year is different, this candidate is different. Of the 211,000 new Democratic voters registered in Florida in the first six months of 2008, nearly 30 percent are black. Another untapped resource is the 388,360 black voters that the Florida Democratic Party says stayed home in 2004. (Democrat John Kerry lost Florida by about 381,000 votes.)

Republican officials say the number of blacks who didn't vote is closer to 235,700 and are skeptical of an outpouring of Obama supporters in November.

''We've seen this spin before. In fact we see it during every election,'' said Erin Van Sickle, spokeswoman for the Republican Party of Florida. ``The Democratic organization can't hold a candle to the Republican party's time-tested strategy of recruiting volunteers and focusing on the people who are likely to vote, and they certainly can't do it by focusing all their energy on young people and those who have never voted before in their lives.''

Neither campaign was eager to address specific questions about African-American outreach, perhaps not wanting to give away game plans. Obama also needs to avoid being pigeonholed as a minority candidate. Campaign staffers stressed that they are courting every constituency.

After repeated requests for comment, McCain spokesman Mario Diaz said: ``We recognize the challenge of competing for votes in the African-American community during this historic election. Despite that we are not giving up, and ultimately Sen. McCain's message will resonate in the African-American community.''

Among the signs that portend a groundbreaking election: Obama T-shirts sold alongside hip-hop apparel on street corners and at flea markets. A new Haitian-American Democratic Club in Broward. Voter-registration drives on Sundays at black churches.

More than 100 people showed up Thursday for the opening of Obama's Fort Lauderdale campaign office in a building that used to be a hangout for vagrants.

''I don't think anyone wants to sit on the sidelines for this one,'' said Mathes Guice, director of the men's ministry at the Koinonia Worship Center in Pembroke Park.

The new breed of political activists includes 44-year-old Yolanda English of Miramar, who is hosting fundraisers and walking door to door with her two daughters.

''Even my family members and friends who have never been engaged and could care less are not only getting out and voting, but actually getting out there and campaigning,'' said English, who is a financial advisor.

Exit polls show that about 90 percent of black voters voted for the Democratic ticket in the past two presidential elections in Florida.

But for black voters to make a difference for Obama, he has to get them to the polls. Less than 60 percent of newly registered black voters went to the polls in 2004, compared to about 74 percent of all new white voters.

When the Broward Votes coalition recently hosted its first candidate forum at the African American Research Library and Cultural Center in Fort Lauderdale, there were more candidates and staffers than voters.

`DISENFRANCHISED'

''People have the belief that it doesn't matter if you go to the polls, my vote won't count,'' said Andrea Owes, director of special projects at the Urban League, referring to black voters turned away from the polls in 2000. ``We've been disenfranchised here in Florida.''

Obama's only campaign event targeted at black voters so far was a rally nearly a year ago at the predominantly black Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. His nine-month absence due to his pledge to boycott Florida's unsanctioned early primary leaves him with a lot of ground to cover in a state chock full of black voters.

In February 2007, Democrat Hillary Clinton chose Liberty City for her first public appearance in Florida as a presidential candidate. Her husband attracted a record number of Miami-Dade blacks to the polls when he ran for reelection in 1996, according to Sen. Wilson.

''It would be good for Obama to show his face in the community,'' said Eddy Edwards, a Miami-Dade resident from Jamaica who co-hosts the Caribbean Riddims radio program. ``It would solidify his base.''

Part of the problem is that there are a limited number of venues that can accommodate the crowds Obama typically draws.

''The only way Obama could come to one of our black churches would be in the dead of night when no one knew he was coming,'' quipped Wilson, who accompanied Kerry to Friendship Missionary Baptist in Miami in the homestretch of the 2004 campaign.

McCain's best asset in the black community may be Gov. Charlie Crist, who received 18 percent of the black vote in 2006, the best showing by a Republican statewide candidate in recent history.

Last fall, Crist addressed the state party's first conference aimed at black voters, which drew about 400 people to Orlando.

''Many African Americans are joyous to see this Democratic nominee, but Republicans need to stay on message,'' said state Rep. Jennifer Carroll of Jacksonville, the first black Republican elected to the Legislature. ``It's not about the man. It's not about his skin color. It's about the differences between the two parties.''

Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.

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