John McCain's plunging poll numbers in Florida have top Republicans second-guessing and starting to distance themselves from the campaign.
BY MARY ELLEN KLAS AND MARC CAPUTO
For the first time in more than a decade, Florida Republicans are considering the almost unthinkable: Their presidential nominee could lose the state.
The economy, an unpopular president, a strong opponent, and the inability of John McCain to reverse poll numbers despite repeatedly revising his strategy has top state Republicans looking for someone to blame.
''There are a lot of folks who have never been in a foxhole before and are clearly nervous,'' said Brian Ballard, a major McCain fundraiser. ``There is some finger-pointing going on a little bit too soon.''
Even Gov. Charlie Crist, who helped deliver Florida for McCain during the primary, said he will be spending more time minding the state's weak economy than campaigning for the Arizona senator in the final weeks before Election Day.
''When I have time to help, I'll try to do that,'' Crist said last week, after he flew around the state with McCain running mate Sarah Palin. Saturday, he skipped a McCain football rally and instead went to Disney World.
Once considered a potential running mate, Crist had pledged to do all he could for McCain and spent several days this summer campaigning for the Republican nominee in and outside Florida. He faults the tough economic times for McCain's difficult time in Florida, where he trails rival Barack Obama by about 5 percentage points in the polls.
No Republican has won the White House in modern times without carrying Florida. The last to lose the state was McCain's former colleague, Sen. Bob Dole, in 1996. Some Republicans say the state party hasn't done enough, while others blame McCain's national campaign.
Roger Stone, a longtime McCain supporter, said the state party and the national campaign bear almost equal blame.
''This effort lacks coordination and a cooperative spirit and it's showing,'' Stone said. ``But it's more than mechanics. The campaign has no consistent message.''
Over the summer, the Obama camp spent at least $10 million on Florida television ads -- 4,000 of the spots attacking McCain -- while McCain spent nothing.
The failure by the party and McCain's campaign to respond to an Obama radio ad in Florida that bashed McCain over embryonic stem-cell research was ''a perfect example of them not being on the ball in Florida,'' Stone said, echoing numerous Florida Republicans. But national campaign officials said McCain is within striking distance of Obama in the polls, has ample time to turn things around, and had a winning strategy until Wall Street's crash.
''It's a little early for Monday-morning quarterbacking.'' said McCain's southeast regional director, Buzz Jacobs.
Asked about Republican complaints that the campaign doesn't even have enough T-shirts or bumper stickers for supporters, Jacobs had another interpretation: ``It's a sign of a healthy campaign whenever the demand is greater than the supply.''
A bright spot for McCain is that 200,000 more Republicans have requested absentee ballots than Democrats in Florida. But Democrats now outnumber Republicans by 500,000 statewide, thanks to huge new voter-registration drives by Obama's campaign and liberal activist groups like ACORN.
McCain's national political director, Mike DuHaime, dismissed the second-guessing as a typical campaign hazard. Ballard, the Florida fundraiser, said this is all a function of the fact that it's a tough year for Republicans and that McCain has agreed to campaign spending limits and federal matching funds while Obama has not. ''We're going to be outspent. It's a fact of life,'' he said.
Democrats say they expect the race to tighten, despite their cash advantage. And economic problems aside, Republican spending is also lower in Florida than in 2004 because there's no Jeb Bush determined to deliver Florida for his brother.
All of this comes at a time when the party financial reports show that in the last quarter GOP officials claimed $500,000 in credit card expenses and $300,000 for chartered planes.
Jim Greer, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said the party's spending isn't unusual for election time. Greer chartered a private jet last week to appear at a Sarah Palin rally after he was told there was no room on the campaign plane.
That came just after the St. Petersburg Times reported details about a strategy meeting between McCain's Florida staff and GOP officials and Greer was quoted as saying he was just trying ''to make sure everything was done right'' by the McCain campaign.
McCain staffers say the meeting was routine and many Republicans viewed the leak of the meeting as blame-shifting by Greer, especially after he criticized Palin in the New York Times.
Some Florida Republicans are concerned that state donors sent $34 million to McCain's national campaign, while only $14 million has been spent here. Meantime, McCain fruitlessly spent money in Michigan -- where he has now pulled out.
McCain's campaign expects to spend much more as the state becomes more competitive. Obama has boasted that he'll spend $40 million in the state. Moving into the final stretch, Obama spent nearly five times as much as McCain during the first week of October -- $2.9 million to McCain's $623,000, according to Data Source, a market-research firm.
DECADE OF DOMINANCE
The GOP jitters have spread quickly in a state where Republicans have enjoyed a decade of political dominance, said Sen. Mike Fasano, a Republican from New Port Richey in Pasco County, the state's premier bellwether county.
''Right now, a lot of people who support the McCain-Palin ticket are concerned,'' he said. ``They see what is broadcast on TV and see the poll numbers and are worried.''
He says he is encouraged that despite ``all that has happened, the fact that John McCain and Sarah Palin are still within striking distance tells you something.''
Crist, a self-described optimist, had a rosy view of McCain's campaign in the state: ``I think they're doing a fine job. You can always do more.''
George LeMieux, Crist's former campaign manager and staff chief, said McCain erred in not choosing Crist as running mate.
''If Gov. Crist was the vice presidential nominee, John McCain would be winning Florida,'' he said. ``But I think McCain still has a very good chance of winning Florida. Whichever candidate has a better economic plan is going to be the winner.''
Crist has stressed the need to focus on the economy and, close allies say, has grown troubled with the negative direction of the McCain campaign as it focuses more on Obama's connections to 1960s radical William Ayers, rather than on pocketbook issues.
''Everybody runs their campaign the way they think is the best to run it,'' Crist said last week. Asked about the Ayers attack, the governor raised his eyebrows and said: ``It is what it is.''