Battleground Florida

President George W. Bush aired his first round of ads in three Florida markets, more than in any other state. Sen. John Kerry opened his general-election campaign with an appearance in Orlando. Political interest groups such as the New Democratic Network plan to spend most of their ad budgets in the Sunshine State.

All eyes will be on Florida this year, as they were during the bitter and drawn-out presidential fight in 2000. The public-interest group Alliance for Better Campaigns estimates that $102 million will be spent on political ads throughout the campaign in pursuit of the state’s coveted 27 electoral votes. And the complexities presented by Florida’s shifting demographics will keep even the most careful media planner sweating all the way through to the small hours of election night.

“Both parties have to have this state,” says Lance deHaven-Smith, a professor of public administration at Florida State University and author of The Florida Voter, an analysis of the electorate’s voting behavior. “Whoever wins this state will win the election.”

Bush’s strategists know they can no longer rely on Florida to vote solidly Republican. The conditions that led to Florida being so closely contested in 2000 have only intensified with the growth of non-Cuban Hispanics in the state’s central region. Of the 9 million registered voters in the state, Democrats now outnumber Republicans by 42 percent to 38.4 percent. And Florida is also home to a number of black voters who are still angry over the last election and could turn out in greater numbers this time. All these factors favor the Kerry campaign.

On Bush’s side, Florida’s economy is in solid shape, with strong job growth since 2000. Republicans have appealed successfully to female baby boomers concerned about crime and rural white Democrats—known as Blue Dog Democrats—who are conservative on social issues and prefer a smaller federal government. The popularity of the president’s brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, who won re-election in 2002 and speaks fluent Spanish, is also a boon for the Republicans.

The epicenter of Florida’s presidential struggle will be the region in the middle of the state, along the Interstate 4 corridor near Orlando. This area has seen an influx of about 100,000 Hispanics from Puerto Rico and Mexico since 2000. Many of them are not affiliated with any party. “Everyone is in agreement that this area is the hinge on which Florida will swing,” deHaven-Smith says.

The overall number of registered voters in the state that have no party affiliation has grown to 17 percent, or 1.6 million. The fight over this group will turn Florida into an advertising war zone as each camp works not only to turn out its own base but to lure these swing voters.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, says Bush and Kerry will focus on two constituencies: Hispanic voters and the families of soldiers fighting in Iraq. “There has been a rise in Hispanic media in Florida, and [Hispanics] are going to pay more attention to advertising,” Jamieson says. “Also look at the targeted messages to military families. The National Guard units are not happy about being continued in Iraq beyond a year. Bush won in 2000 on absentee military ballots. If that group turns on Bush, he can’t win, period.”

Bush is paying close attention to the Hispanic vote. When his campaign launched its advertising March 4, orchestrated by Mark McKinnon, Bush’s director of media and advertising, it bought airtime in Miami, Orlando and Tampa. His feel-good spot “Safer, Stronger” and the anti-Kerry ad “Troubling” also aired in Spanish in Florida. “Safer, Stronger” shows scenes of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. “Troubling,” launched April 3, attacks Kerry by suggesting the Massachusetts senator would “raise taxes by at least $900 billion in his first 100 days.”

Matthew Dowd, Bush’s chief strategist, confirms that Florida is high on his priority list. “In no other state are we running in three markets,” he says. “Florida will again be close.”

Soldiers and their families are also top of mind, all the more so considering the escalating violence in Iraq and the media coverage of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks. In the last two weeks, the Bush campaign shifted its advertising strategy, pulling all of its ads and reintroducing a spot it previously aired in West Virginia that examines Kerry’s vote against funding for troops in Iraq. The spot is now airing in 17 swing states and on national cable networks.

During a conference call with reporters, Dowd said the pullback is part of a planned strategy to vary the intensity of advertising throughout the campaign season and not a reaction to recent events in Iraq. But he admitted the advertising has lacked a certain amount of punch. Bush has so far spent about $41 million on ads across the country, according to figures the campaign released last week.

“I think the ads are not as effective as some consultants say but more effective than the Kerry people intimate,” Dowd says. “We think the ads have been helpful, not by themselves but … as part of a larger mix of campaign communications.”

The reintroduced spot, “Troops-Fog,” mocks Kerry for flip-flopping on last year’s $87 billion supplemental appropriation to support military operations and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kerry voted against the bill, but earlier had co-sponsored an amendment, which was defeated, to pay for the measure by rolling back some of Bush’s tax cuts. The ad shows footage of Kerry saying, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” The spot suggests this is proof of Kerry equivocating and says he is “wrong on defense.”

Smelling blood, the Kerry campaign has countered with its own jabs, arguing that the Bush campaign’s pullback of ads is a sign that they aren’t working. “If you threw tens of millions of dollars at a project and saw no tangible benefits, you would probably reassess as well,” says Kerry campaign rep Mark Kornblau.

Kerry completed a three-day campaign swing in Florida over the April 17 weekend and fit in an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press. During the hourlong interview, which covered topics such as Iraq, the budget and jobs, Kerry responded to what he called the deceptions in “Troops-Fog.” “I voted to have that bill paid for by reducing the tax cut to the wealthiest Americans so we would be responsible fiscally, and that was a way to do it,” he said. “Now, when they weren’t willing to do that, and they weren’t willing to change their policy to bring other nations to the table to reduce the cost to Americans, you’re darn right I voted against it, because one of the lessons I learned in Vietnam is when the policy is wrong, fix it. And I voted to fix it. … That was a vote for principle.”

Kerry called the ad “almost pathetic,” saying the vote for the appropriation bill “wasn’t a series of votes. It was one vote. And that is a distortion to the American people.”

Bush, meanwhile, travels to Florida this week, making his 21st appearance in the state since becoming president. Gov. Jeb Bush has also been campaigning for his brother. Just last week he railed against Kerry after a student newspaper reported the Democratic nominee favors drilling for oil off the Florida coast. Kerry’s campaign said the paper had gotten its candidate’s stand wrong and that Bush was attempting “to distort John Kerry’s record and scare Florida voters.”

Florida may also factor into Kerry’s choice of running mate. Conventional wisdom holds that Kerry needs a Southerner to win Florida, and speculation remains high that Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., and former Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., are likely choices. Both Edwards and Graham appeared at a fundraiser with Kerry last week in Bal Harbour, Fla.

“The only time the Democrats have won the presidency since 1964 has been when they have had a Southerner [Bill Clinton] at the top of the ticket,” FSU’s deHaven-Smith says.

Kerry has spent $2 million on advertising in Florida since Feb. 1, all of it in the Orlando market, according to his campaign. One ad, “Opportunity,” which focuses on healthcare and education, has aired in English and Spanish. Mike Donilon of Washington political consultancy Shrum, Devine & Donilon crafted two spots, released last week in all swing states, that focus on American security and Iraq. In one, Kerry calls for other countries to help U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq—a sore point for Bush now that Spain and Honduras have decided to pull out troops. Donilon is working on other ads that, sources say, will focus on Kerry’s record in Vietnam and his preference for a balanced budget—two issues that voters are receptive to, polling suggests. Those ads are expected to launch in the next two weeks.

Upping the ante for both camps, there is an open Senate seat in Florida—the one vacated by Graham—that is expected to be bitterly contested. Bush has sent his former Housing and Urban Development secretary Mel Martinez to compete in the race.

Meanwhile, a number of political special-interest groups are also zeroing in on Florida. The New Democratic Network is targeting Hispanics in Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada but will spend much of its ad money in Florida. Out of a $5 million ad effort across those four states that began March 5, the group is spending nearly $2 million on Spanish-language anti-Bush ads in Miami, Orlando and Tampa. “This could be the community that decides elections well beyond 2004,” says NDN vp Maria Cardona.

Add to all this a state bill that may end up on the ballot that would require minors to get parental consent for abortions, and the environment on the airwaves could become downright chaotic. By November, predicts Jim Innocenzi, a Washington political media consultant, seven of every eight ad minutes of TV programming in Florida will be devoted to politics, with Orlando and Tampa the focal points. Innocenzi says, “If those voters in those markets don’t throw up by November from the amount of political ads that are going to be out there, they never will.”

– WITH SHEILA R. CHERRY