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Again, Florida is pivotal to outcome of election

MIAMI — Twenty-seven.

Any Floridian bewildered by the attention the two presidential candidates and their bevy of running mates, wives, children and allies continue to lavish on the Sunshine State need only to remember a number: 27.

Twenty-seven as in a full 10 percent of 270, the number of electoral votes needed to win the presidency. Twenty-seven as in the single biggest chunk of said electoral votes still up in the air.

The three states with bigger electoral prizes — California, 55, Texas, 34, and New York, 31 — are safely in the columns of Democratic challenger John Kerry, Republican President Bush and Kerry, respectively.

Florida's heft compared to the other swing states — it has nearly 30 percent more electoral clout than the next largest state, Pennsylvania — has some observers and even campaign aides suggesting that the winner of Florida will almost certainly be the next president.

"If you look at the maps and the way this election is shaping up, as goes Florida, so goes the nation," said Brett Doster, head of the Bush campaign in the state.

Kerry's aides have a slightly different spin. Because Bush took Florida in 2000 — then, it had only 25 electoral votes, prior to the post-Census reapportionment — after 36 days of disputed recounts and lawsuits, Florida is a near "must-win" for Bush but only a "nice-to-win" for Kerry, they say.

"Hard," said Kerry adviser Mike McCurry, describing Bush's challenge to win re-election without Florida. "They could. But I don't see how they can win without Florida and Ohio . . . I feel real good about what we have going on here and feel real good about Ohio, but we're not taking anything for granted."

For decades, Republicans saw Florida as part of the "Solid South" that emerged when the party wooed white, Democratic segregationists angry with Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson for their support of civil rights laws.

Between 1960 and 1992, Florida supported the Democratic nominee only twice: in Johnson's landslide victory of 1964, and in Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter's post-Watergate win in 1976.

Republicans assumed the shift was a permanent one, particularly after the party took control of both chambers of the legislature in 1996 and Jeb Bush won the governorship in 1998. President Bill Clinton's 6-percentage point victory in the state in 1996 was seen as an anomaly, more a function of the weakness of Republican Bob Dole's campaign than a reflection of the state's voting patterns.

But in 2000, with the statehouse under Republican control and the GOP presidential nominee's extremely popular brother in the Governor's Mansion, the presidential contest was nonetheless a virtual tie. Officially, President Bush won by 537 votes, but Democrats point out that at least 30,000 more voters went to the polls that Tuesday intending to cast ballots for Democrat Al Gore over Bush but either accidentally voted for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan or had their votes disqualified because of confusing ballot designs.

Some observers saw in the results an ongoing, fundamental shift in the state's electorate. An influx of Democratic-leaning non-Cuban Hispanics, an increasing number of young families with children and a growing elderly population concerned about rising health care costs began putting education and social services — historically Democratic Party strengths — ahead of lower taxes and national security.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, at least temporarily, has slowed or possibly reversed that transition — the likely reason that a president with policies as unpopular as Bush's nonetheless has an even chance at reelection, according to polls.

All of which has put Florida once again at the fulcrum of the presidential election.

A look at the electoral college map from 2000 shows that if Bush kept his states and Kerry held Gore's states, Bush's margin of victory would increase slightly, thanks to increasing populations in Sun Belt states at the expense of the Northeast and Rust Belt.

Which explains why Kerry, despite Jeb Bush's easy re-election in 2002, decided early to make a serious push for Florida. Winning Florida while holding Gore's other states would mean an easy Kerry victory. Winning Florida would even allow Kerry to lose states like New Mexico, Iowa and Wisconsin and still become president.

Hence the months-long television advertising blitz in Florida, with both sides throwing tens of millions of dollars to boost their own names and disparage the other's.

With Nov. 2 drawing near, first Kerry, and then Bush, decided that even that was not enough, making the state a top campaign destination in the closing weeks — a fact all the more remarkable given Florida's geography compared to the other major "swing states" in play.

Pennsylvania and its 21 electoral votes is adjacent to Ohio with its 20, which borders Michigan and its 17. A short plane ride from that trio are three more neighboring swing states: Minnesota, 10 votes, Wisconsin, 10, and Iowa, 7.

Coming to Florida is an investment of at least five hours on a plane, round-trip, that cannot be spent campaigning.

In the last six weeks, it is an investment both Bush and Kerry — and especially Kerry — have felt compelled to make.

Since Sept. 21, when Kerry ended his moratorium on campaign visits to a hurricane-ravaged state, he has made six separate visits to Florida, spending all or part of 11 days here. A rally tonight in Tampa, and possibly Monday morning near Orlando, will make it seven visits and 13 days.

Bush also avoided overt campaign swings during the five weeks of hurricanes and their immediate aftermath, although he made five separate trips to look at damage, hand out ice to victims and announce disaster relief. His campaign and its allies have touted these trips as reasons Floridians should vote for Bush.

But in the past two weeks, Bush, perhaps to counter Kerry, has resumed his own trips south: four trips, counting Orlando Saturday night and Miami, Tampa and Gainesville today, and all or part of seven campaign days.

Recent polls continue to suggest it could go either way. Republicans point to surveys that show him with a consistent lead of a few to as many as eight points. Democrats point to other polls that show Kerry slightly ahead — including a Palm Beach Post/Reuters/Zogby International survey this weekend — and recall that polls also showed Bush a few points ahead in the final days of the 2000 campaign, only to lose that edge because of a massive Democratic turnout.

"We're going to be here, and we'll be back again," said McCurry during the candidate's Friday trip here. "This is a very critical battleground state."