Bush Secured Victory in Florida by Veering From Beaten Path

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Published: November 7, 2004

Article originally published at http://nytimes.com/2004/11/07/politics/campaign/07florida.html

This article was reported by Don Van Natta, Abby Goodnough, Christopher Drew and William Yardley, and was written by Ms. Goodnough and Mr. Van Natta.

LAND O' LAKES, Fla., Nov. 5 - Pasco County might be unheard of outside Florida, but that did not stop President Bush, Rudolph W. Giuliani and other Republican luminaries from visiting as Election Day approached.

This rapidly growing place north of Tampa, where shopping centers, road extensions and subdivisions open by the month, supported Al Gore in 2000 and Bill Clinton in the two previous elections. But since Mr. Gore's bitter defeat, thousands of middle-class families, many of them Republican and independent, have joined the many Democratic retirees who used to dominate here, making it a prime target for Gov. Jeb Bush, his brother and a vast army of Republican volunteers eager to erase the stain of the 36-day stalemate of 2000.

Their efforts paid off. While Democrats placed their emphasis on the state's urban centers and dispatched thousands of lawyers in a defensive effort to avoid mistakes they made four years ago, the Bush campaign concentrated on the new face of Florida, winning a margin of nearly 20,000 votes in Pasco and racking up many thousands more in counties like it.

As early returns came in on election night, the president's strong showing here prompted Governor Bush to call his brother in the White House with the news. "This was much better than what our projections were for a narrow victory,'' the governor said he told President Bush. "You are going to win."

What happened in Pasco County is what happened in suburban and rural communities throughout Florida. The Bush campaign lavished these communities with attention while Senator John Kerry's campaign and the independent groups working on its behalf invested most of their resources in cities like Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Orlando.

The Republican strategy succeeded most along the Interstate 4 corridor in central Florida, where Mr. Bush's pledges to quash terrorism and promote traditional values appealed to the mostly white, middle-class, religious-leaning population.

Mr. Bush held rallies in out-of-the-way places like Gainesville, Niceville, New Port Richey and the Villages, a giant subdivision in Central Florida, while not neglecting conservative cities like Pensacola and even making several stops in Palm Beach County, a Democratic stronghold. But it was aggressive grass-roots efforts in new population centers like Pasco that Republicans say turned out record numbers of Bush supporters on Election Day, expanding a 537-vote margin four years ago to nearly 400,000 votes this year.

In particular, the Republicans focused these efforts on conservatives who had often failed to vote.

The Republicans enlisted 109,000 volunteers statewide to make a total of three million voter contacts on Election Day and the five days prior, strategists said. In 2000, fewer than 10,000 Republican volunteers made 77,000 contacts in the three months before Election Day, they said.

"I have worked several campaigns in Florida and I have never seen such a massive grass-roots program," said Mike Hanna, who led the Republican effort in central Florida. "Usually, you get volunteers, but you don't always get a lot of work out of every one of them. This was different. The passion of these volunteers was something I had never seen before."

Offense Trumps Defense

While the Republicans were playing offense, the Democrats, still reeling from their searing experience in the litigated election here in 2000, seemed intent on playing defense. The Democrats dispatched 3,000 volunteer lawyers from around the country who manned the polls, especially in South Florida, the Democratic stronghold, to guard against any efforts by the Republicans to disenfranchise voters.

The Republicans - as part of a broader, carefully charted strategy, they now say - gave the Democratic lawyers a lot to worry about. A week before the election, the Republicans announced they were worried that convicted felons would try to vote, as well as thousands of people who had registered in more than one state. So Democratic lawyers prepared to beat back voter eligibility challenges that they expected from their Republican counterparts.

But only about 6,000 challenges were made throughout Florida, compared with at least 125,000 in Ohio. Outside a polling place in northern Palm Beach County, a cluster of Democratic and nonpartisan lawyers stood in a semicircle at 2 p.m. on Election Day, marveling at how few challenges the Republican lawyers had leveled. "It's going very smoothly," said Jan Jawthrop, a lawyer from Brooklyn. "There have been few challenges. And I think everyone is well informed about their rights. They remember 2000."

As Ms. Jawthrop and her colleagues spoke, a van decorated with Bush-Cheney signs pulled up, and nearly two dozen voters walked past the lawyers to cast their votes.

Republican strategists acknowledged that their party had purposely warned the news media that they might file challenges to deter felons and dual registrants from voting. They said their tough talk had forced the Democrats to marshal their forces to conduct poll monitoring in the critical final days.

"I think they overreacted to it," one senior Republican strategist said. "Come Election Day, they worried about how to protect their vote. Aside from a big head fake in the media, we spent our time worrying about how to get out our vote."

That is where Bill Bunting comes in. The community brigade that helped deliver Pasco County for President Bush started six years ago, when Mr. Bunting and a few friends founded a small political club to lobby against gun-control laws. Keeping pace with the swift development of this rural county, the club has grown from 10 members to more than 400, many of whom made calls, canvassed neighborhoods, waved signs, wrote letters and drove voters to the polls on behalf of Mr. Bush.

"You've never seen anything like it," said Mr. Bunting, a former New York City bar owner and the Pasco Republican Party chairman, still pulsing with adrenaline on Friday. "People working 11 or 12 hours a day, making hundreds of phone calls for the president. Retirees, young home-schooling moms, college kids, a guy in a wheelchair, all saying, 'I'll do anything to help.' "

Mr. Bush's campaign executed similar intensive turnout blitzes in other important swing states, including Ohio, where the Republicans also relied on tens of thousands of volunteers who helped make three million voter contacts in the days leading up to the election.

In Florida, the strategy helped him secure the state's 27 electoral votes by a margin of nearly 400,000 votes. That margin astonished many top Democratic strategists who had orchestrated their own intensive turnout drive here and expected the result to be as close this time.

"We woke up the beast," said Mitchell Berger, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who led the Democratic Party's effort to mobilize lawyers to monitor the polls.

For example, in the Interstate 4 corridor that runs from Tampa through Orlando and up to Daytona Beach, the Republican National Committee had set a goal in early 2003 of attracting 10,000 volunteers, a target that Republicans in the state saw as ambitious and optimistic. And yet on Election Day, they were surprised to see that more than 25,000 in that region had volunteered to help Mr. Bush win re-election.

Three of the four hurricanes that battered Florida this year swept through the I-4 corridor, and the fourth hit the Panhandle. Mr. Bush visited after every storm and swiftly sent federal aid to the regions, a potential factor in his success there.

Nothing, though, was more crucial to the president's triumph than the Republicans' decision to identify and lobby what some of them called "unreliable" or "lazy" voters, a group of about 1.5 million people who were seen as unmotivated because they had participated in only one of the last three or four elections, or were newly registered to vote. In the weeks before Election Day, Republican volunteers, including dozens in Pasco County, repeatedly contacted people in this group.

"If you fell in that universe and were a Republican or a likely Republican voter, you heard from us more than you ever dreamed possible," said Heath Thompson, the Bush campaign's regional political director for the Southeast. "That was the true target of this campaign here."

In Pasco County and other places, Republicans relentlessly called and visited members of their base and the so-called lazy voters in the 72 hours before Election Day, extracting promises that they would vote. Mr. Bunting rented and borrowed six vans to drive voters to the polls on Election Day. When surveys of voters leaving the polls showed Mr. Kerry leading that afternoon, volunteers crammed into tiny offices to make hundreds of last-minute calls.

Late on Tuesday afternoon, a polling place near Pensacola Christian College ran out of ballots, forcing more than 1,000 voters to wait in the rain for hours. The Republican Party handed out bottled water to the voters, who sang "God Bless America." When the polls in most of the state closed at 7 p.m., volunteers statewide placed more than 100,000 get-out-the-vote calls to Escambia County, home of Pensacola, which is on Central time and had another hour of voting.

"It's the hard work and it's the organization that does it," Mr. Bunting said. "If you don't keep contacting them and talking about issues, they're going to be complacent and sit back."

Drumming Up Support

Here, as in suburban counties around the nation, that work started long before Election Day. Mr. Bunting conducted a phone survey last spring to determine what issues resounded with Pasco County residents, and courted them with events like a Fourth of July barbecue that he said drew several thousand people. In Dade City, which has some Hispanic residents, volunteers piled "Viva Bush" stickers in a bodega.

Mr. Bunting also traveled to gun shows with a poster that featured Mr. Kerry giving a thumbs-up sign and described him as "giggling after casting a daylong series of antigun votes."

Mr. Bunting, 64, who moved to Pasco County in the late 1980's, said many of the local volunteers were women in their 30's and 40's who were new residents. While the western part of the county is still thick with retirees and the eastern part remains more rural, the central section is filling up with young families drawn to the open space and relatively low cost of living.

Many are socially conservative and attend the large churches proliferating here, Mr. Bunting said. Anti-abortion billboards are tucked among those advertising sinkhole repair and "dream homes at dream rates."

"You can go to their houses and you know what you'll see?" he asked. "A Christian station on, and a Bible in the house. The biggest reason we did so well on this was morality. It scared the heck out of people if Kerry was going to be the one appointing judges."

Mr. Bunting's party was the minority in Pasco County until 2000, when Republican registration outpaced Democratic by just 1,200. The margin has grown to almost 7,400, and Republicans also pursued independents, who make up 54,000 of the county's 266,000 registered voters.

Statewide, Republicans had a slight advantage in new voter registration in the last four years - 462,254 to 458,168 - but registered Democrats still outnumbered registered Republicans by 4.3 million to 3.9 million on Election Day.

The Bush campaign's persistence in contacting potential supporters was a reversal from 2000, said Fran Coppola, a retired prison warden who volunteered for months.

"You know what?" said Ms. Coppola. "We finally felt like part of a system."

Al Cardenas, co-chairman, with Governor Bush, of the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign in Florida, said the president made significant inroads with crucial Democratic base groups: blacks, Jews and non-Cuban Hispanics. He said the Republicans also established the foundation of a new bloc of Christian conservatives who had demonstrated nearly no interest in politics in previous national elections.

Voter surveys and precinct surveys conducted in Florida by the Republican National Committee showed that Mr. Bush increased his support among blacks to 11 percent in 2004 from 5 percent in 2000, among Hispanics to 55 percent from 49 and among Jews to 25 percent, up from 18 percent in 2000.

"I thought you saw a phenomenal political operation at work and it's going to be very difficult to ever duplicate again," said Tom Slade, a former chairman of the state party and member of the Republican National Committee. "I think Florida is still very, very much a two-party state in statewide contests."

Representative Kendrick Meek, a Democrat who was chairman of Senator Kerry's campaign in Florida, said the state's influential Bush political network, which has honed its skills for more than two decades, would prove "non-transferable" to other Republican candidates after Governor Bush leaves office in 2006. "The bottom line is, on Election Day, we did a good job, they did a better job," Mr. Meek said.

Senator Bob Graham, the longtime Florida Democrat, dismissed demographic shifts as a major factor in the president's decisive victory here. "I think it was a triumph of persona over policy," said Mr. Graham, who is retiring. "People just felt more comfortable with President Bush than they did with Senator Kerry. President Bush was able to convey a senses of strength, leadership and purposefulness as it relates to the war on terror, and the war in Iraq."

Some analysts believe that a fragile political balance in Florida may shift slightly toward the Democrats in the next two decades, as there are projected increases in baby-boomer retirees settling in Florida, as well as influxes of Hispanics from Mexico, Puerto Rico and central and south America, whose majorities tend to favor Democratic candidates.

To counter that trend in the immediate future, Republicans have pinned their hopes on Senator-elect Mel Martinez, the former secretary of housing and urban development. Mr. Martinez, a Republican, became the first Cuban-American to win a Senate seat when he beat Democrat Betty Castor, a former state education commissioner and university president. But the victory margin, fewer than 80,000 votes, suggests that many who voted for Mr. Bush also supported Ms. Castor, a sign that Florida remains in play.

Mr. Cardenas and his Republican colleagues refuse to indulge in overconfidence about the future, making no predictions about their ability to win future Florida elections. "The only thing I know after all these years is it's a blackboard," he said. "And after it's over, you erase it and start all over again."

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