Battle in the sun

To Dole and Clinton, as Florida goes, so goes the presidency

ANDREW PHILLIPS October 21 1996

Battle in the sun

To Dole and Clinton, as Florida goes, so goes the presidency

ANDREW PHILLIPS October 21 1996

Battle in the sun


To Dole and Clinton, as Florida goes, so goes the presidency




If Bob Dole has any chance of defying the odds and winning the White House, he simply has to win Florida. And to win Florida, he badly needs people like Osvaldo Soto. Soto is a jowly, 67-year-old Cuban-American lawyer with the sleekly prosperous look of a man who has done very well for himself

in his adopted country. By all normal political logic, he should be firmly behind the Republican candidate. As a leader of Miami’s powerful Cuban community, he is part of a group that has been staunchly Republican for 35 years. And he is of a generation for

whom opposition to Fidel Castro is close to a religion. With little prompting he recalls taking part in the botched Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, and cheerfully recounts his adventures as a selfdescribed “CIA fixer” in the covert war against the Communist regime. But this year, Soto in-

tends to do the unthinkable: back a Democrat for president. He is so offended by Republican-sponsored measures to clamp down on immigration that he plans to vote for President Bill Clinton. He is, he says, something new in the American political universe: a “Clinton Republican.”

That’s a new twist on an old phenomenon. During the 1980s, many traditional Democrats backed Ronald Reagan and started pundits talking about “Reagan Democrats.” Now, some voters in Florida— and elsewhere—are crossing over in the other direction and helping to give Clinton his commanding lead in the presidential race. And nowhere is that more important than in Florida, the fourthbiggest state with 14 million people. Clinton has the two biggest states, California and New York, virtually locked up (Texas is leaning towards Dole). So even Republicans agree that the electoral math is irrefutable: Dole cannot win without Florida’s 25 votes in the U.S. electoral college, where the candidate who reaches 270 votes wins. “Florida is desperately important for us,” says Marco Rubio, the Dole-Kemp team’s 25-year-old political director in sprawling

Dade County, which includes Miami. “I don’t think we can win this election without Florida.” So far, though, Dole has been trailing. A survey taken on Sept. 20 put Clinton ahead in the state by five points, with 47 per cent support to Dole’s 42.

Something else about the Sunshine State makes it unique in the presidential race. Of all the states, none comes closer to being a national microcosm, says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Its breakdown of languages and races and its mixture of urban, suburban and rural voters mir-

ror national trends. Its wildly diverse political culture and social makeup—stretching from the deeply conservative Panhandle in the north, through the booming mid-state areas of Tampa Bay and Orlando, down to multicultural, multilingual Dade County—means that party strate-

gists see it as a key testing ground for national trends. Along with the rest of the United States, Florida lined up solidly behind Reagan and George Bush in the 1980s. Now, Clinton has a good shot at becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state since Jimmy Carter in 1976. And he is attempting it with a formula attuned to the mood of the mid-1990s: cautiously optimistic, fiscally conservative and socially moderate.

Even in Florida, Miami and surrounding Dade County is a place on its own. Dade is home to some of the state’s most liberal voters among the large Jewish population in the ocean-front condo complexes, and some its most conservative, in the burgeoning Hispanic community. Spanish-speakers comprise about 47 per cent of the county’s two million people—and by the next presidential vote in the year 2000 are expected to form a slight majority. Of course, Spanish is common in many American cities, but in California and Texas it is often the language of poor people still trying to make it. In Miami, the presence of the large, dynamic Cuban community makes Spanish a language of

wealth and power. Cubans did not come to America as cap-in-hand immigrants, says Osvaldo Soto, but as middle-class political exiles with traditions of enterprise and a fierce determination to succeed.

That they have done, and the signs are everywhere, from a dozen Spanish-language radio stations, two TV stations, and a daily presence that gives the city its famous Latin flavor. Calle Ocho (Eighth Street), the main drag of Miami’s Little Havana, spills over with Spanish signs, restaurants and businesses—but Cubans have long since expanded out of their ethnic enclaves. A young Cuban-American, Alex Pendas, won election as mayor of Dade County on Oct. 1 in a vote that was sharply polarized along ethnic rather than party lines. A Democrat, he defeated a black rival after a campaign that saw some black commentators warning darkly about a “master plan by Cubans” to take over the county. Their anti-Communism put Cuban-Americans firmly in the Republican camp for almost two generations: in 1984 they supported Reagan’s bid for re-election by an astonishing 94 per cent. Now, though, the Republican grip is weakening dramatically. A recent poll showed that as many as a third of Cuban voters may back Clinton—and that alone would be worth four percentage points in a state whose race may well be decided by an even smaller margin.

Part of the reason is that Clinton took a stronger anti-Castro stance than earlier Democrats when he supported the Helms-Burton Act, which penalizes foreign companies that do business with Cuba. But a bigger reason is the immigration bill passed by the Republican-controlled Congress, which would, among other things, deny education rights to the children of illegal immigrants. “It’s an anti-immigrant Congress,” says Soto. “They did a disservice to the party. And that’s the main reason why Clinton is going to take Florida.”

It is, of course, predictable that Cuban-Americans (about 12 per cent of voters) would claim that they form the crucial voting bloc

that the parties must woo. In such a closely fought state, many groups make that claim—and all of them are right. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” says political scientist MacManus. “Putting together a winning coalition in Florida means putting together all kinds of groups to get to 50 per cent.”

The biggest single piece of the puzzle is senior citizens. If Florida’s population generally reflects that of the United States, the glaring exception is its preponderance of people age 65 and over. They form 24.6 per cent of voters—the highest in any state—compared with 17 per cent nationally. And they, too, are leaning more heavily than usual towards Clinton. The reason: medicare. The Democrats have successfully painted Dole and the Republicans as enemies of public health care, arguing that his promised 15-per-cent tax cut will mean slashes in medicare. For months, the Clinton campaign has hammered Florida voters with television ads attacking the Republicans over health care—while Dole, who had spent all he was allowed to under U.S. campaign limits long before he was officially nominated in August, was unable to reply.

That has left Republicans frustrated. “They’ve been totally lying,” Congressman Tillie Fowler, a Republican from Jacksonville, said in an interview. “That’s the biggest problem we’ve had.” As a result, both Dole and Jack Kemp, his running mate, went out of their way during their debates with Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore last week to deny that they would cut health care. In Hartford, Conn., Dole drew yet again on his oft-told story about recovering from grievous war wounds to argue that he would never do such a thing. “I know all about poverty and need and taking care of people,” he said. “Stop scaring the seniors, Mr. President.” And Kemp, in his low-key debate with Gore in St. Petersburg, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, accused the Democrats of “demagoguery.”

Even Dole’s age—73—seems to give him no special affinity with seniors. If anything, says Kenneth Cohen, a 70-year-old retired businessman in the Dade County condominium community of

Aventura, it cuts the other way. “Let me tell you frankly: when you get older, it’s the pits,” he says. “Seniors look at Bob Dole and they see another old guy. They look at Clinton and they see youth, vitality—what they were 10 or 20 years ago.”

St. Petersburg, next door to booming Tampa, is a world away from Miami. Political analysts refer to the part of the state that stretches from the Gulf Coast cities through Orlando, famous as the home of Disney World, and on to Atlantic Coast communities like Daytona Beach, as the 1-4 Corridor, after the highway that runs through it. The corridor is Florida’s most dynamic, fastestgrowing region, where many of the 250,000 people who flock to the state each year set-

tle. It is the state’s key swing area, and it

closely mirrors the political currents that are shaping this election in Florida—and the country as a whole.

The area’s voters tend to be newcomers to the state (two-thirds were not born in Florida), suburbanites, and motivated even more than others by economic concerns. That should make them receptive to Dole’s tax-cut proposal. But with the economy rolling along at a healthy clip and the stock markets setting record highs almost every month, many see no need to change direction. Peter Tardley and his wife Melissa, who moved to the Tampa area from Michigan in 1985, are typical. Shopping last week at one ofTampa’s seemingly countless strip malls, Tardley described himself as “a Republican—mostly.” A

43-year-old engineer, he backed Reagan and Bush but now leans towards Clinton. “I wasn’t voting Republican before so much as voting growth,” he said. “Now, we’ve got the growth, so why not stick with what we’ve got?” Like many voters, though, Tardley shows no particular enthusiasm for Clinton—nothing like the fervent support that Reagan once attracted in the area. “Clinton’s better than he was,” was all Tardley would say when pressed on why he plans to support the President. “He’s grown into the job.”

Clinton and Gore are making the most of that feeling of economic well-being, which is widespread nationally. In their debates, they argued that Dole’s 15-per-cent tax cut would send Washington’s deficit soaring again and put at risk the continuing economic expansion. “We are better off than we were four years ago,” Clinton said in Hartford. “Let’s keep it going.” That left Dole in the difficult position of arguing that times are tougher than they seem, that working families are being squeezed, and growth should be even faster. So far, it is a message that seems out of sync with the times. With three weeks to voting day on Nov. 5, Dole trails badly in national polls, although one survey late last week showed Clinton’s lead had shrunk to 12 points.

The key to Clinton’s success in the 1-4 Corridor—and, by extension, in dozens of similar areas across the United States—lies also in his deft repositioning of his party in the past two years. After voters rebuked the President in 1994 by handing control of Congress to Newt Gingrich’s Republicans, Clin-

^TALLAHASSEE Jacksonville 3J i ATLANTIC OCEAN \ A Daytona Beach GULF OF MEXICO Orlando o oTampa °St. Petersburg A Palm THE FLORIDA Beach SUNSHINE )Miami STATE «A' "

Population: 14 million Ancestry: Hispanic, 12.5%; other European, 71%; African, 14.5%; Asian-Pacific, 1.5%; native, 0.3% Median household income: $40,828 annually (national: $46,773) Violent crimes: 1,206 per 100,000 people in 1993, highest among American states Average days per year without rain (Tampa): 249 Voters over 6S: 24.6%, highest in the nation Presidential electoral-college votes: 25, fourth-highest among states (needed to win: 270) 1992 results: George Bush, 41%; Bill Clinton, 39%; Ross Perot, 20%

ton moved quickly to the centre. Bob Buckhorn, a 38-year-old Tampa city councillor who runs the Clinton-Gore campaign team in the city’s Hillsborough County, says the President’s moderate message has strong appeal in the area. “Here we have a lot of moderate swing voters—they’re not polarized like they are in south Florida,” he said at his crowded campaign office in yet another of the city’s strip malls. “And the way the President has moved the party to the centre works very well with them.” Buckhorn is a longtime supporter of the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist group that Clinton participated in before he became president; the council argued that the Democrats had to abandon their flirtation with left-wing interest-group

politics and appeal to moderate and even conservative voters. “For a long time, the Democrats ran away from those of us who are in the middle,” Buckhorn said.

Now, Buckhorn ticks off issues that Clinton has acted on that appeal directly to the people he works with—middle-class families with few fixed ideological convictions. They include crime (Clinton’s national plan to fund more police officers has put 60 more on the streets of Tampa alone), down-to-earth social issues such as curbing teen pregnancy and promoting literacy that appeal particularly to women voters, and safeguarding medicare. “You’ve got Republicans and inde pendents responding to the President’s message,” he says. “And Democrats who felt the party had left them are now coming home.” All that has Republicans worried. Outside of the key swing state of Ohio, both parties have bought more television time in Florida than anywhere else. Now that Republicans are answering the Democrats’ attacks over medicare with TV ads of their own, they claim they will be able to make up ground in the campaign’s final days. But there is an unmistakable undercurrent of concern. Marco Rubio, the young Dole organizer in Dade County, mused about the first presidential debate one day last week and acknowledged that Clinton is a more natural performer. “If this election was an audition for host of a talk show, Dole wouldn’t stand a chance,” he said. ‘This is a campaign that will truly test whether we’re a nation of style or substance.” If that indeed is the choice, recent political history offers little comfort for Republicans. □