President leapfrogs rivals to Florida

President Obama “can’t wait” to get to Florida — his chances of getting reelected might depend on it.

When Obama heads to the Sunshine State on Thursday, he’ll be appearing at Walt Disney World to make an announcement aimed at boosting tourism to the United States as part of the White House’s “We Can’t Wait” initiative.

But his beeline for Orlando — inside the state’s crucial I-4 Corridor — is a move that puts him on the offensive in Florida ahead of its primary on Jan. 31.

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“It’s yet another example of counter-programming and the strategy this White House is using to attempt to steal the thunder from Republicans ahead of the primary,” said Daniel A. Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Florida. “In anticipation of the upcoming election, Obama is attempting to make himself appear relevant.”

Obama is purposely targeting the all-important Central Florida area — rich with the state’s independent voters and a growing Hispanic population — because it’s key to his winning reelection.

A victory in Florida would make it very difficult for the Republican candidate for president to defeat Obama. The GOP would almost surely need to win a number of states Obama took from Republicans in 2008, in addition to some states that have remained in the Democratic column through a few elections.


Yet a victory for Obama in Florida, where his approval ratings appear to have dipped, is no sure thing, and the president will need to get to work in the struggling state if he wants to win its 27 electoral votes in November.

A Quinnipiac poll out last week shows Obama trailing GOP presiential frontrunner Mitt Romney 46 percent to 43 among registered voters in Florida. The president also has an overall favorability rating of 45 percent, with 50 percent of voters surveyed saying they had an unfavorable view.

Romney, still campaigning in South Carolina, greeted Obama's trip to Florida on Thursday with an open letter to the president in the Tampa Bay Times. 

"Dear Mr. President, Welcome to Florida. I have a simple question for you: where are the jobs?" Romney wrote in the ad. "Unemployment here was 8.5 percent when you assumed office. Today, as we enter the fourth year of your term, it is 10 percent. Nearly a million men and women here are fruitlessly seeking work. Many others have simply given up looking. They’ve given up hope."

Smith said Obama needs to reignite support among his core constituencies, as well as voters in the critical I-4 Corridor, to keep Florida in his column in the election.

“It’s all a matter of exciting those voters, and the same goes for the African-American communities here that have lost some of the excitement they were exhibiting four years ago,” Smith said.

At the White House on Wednesday, press secretary Jay Carney denied that the president’s trip was a response to the upcoming Republican primary in Florida.

“You could argue that, but first of all, our schedules are made, you know, with a lot of different considerations well in advance,” Carney said. “You know, I think, I read reports a few weeks ago that the thing would be over after Iowa — or that it could go on until May. You know that would make it impossible — if we were guessing in the weeks in advance that we made travel arrangements like this — to go to many, many places.

“The president, as every president is, is the president of all the United States of America, of all the people in the country,” Carney added. “And he’s going to travel around the country to talk about issues that are important to Americans in every state, including, most importantly, economic growth and job creation.”

But Republicans argue that the Florida of 2008 is not the same state Obama will encounter in 2012. Unemployment stood at 10 percent as of November, much higher than the national average, and home foreclosures are rampant.

Former Sen. Mel Martinez, the Republican who served the state in the upper chamber alongside Obama, said that while the president carried Florida last time, “if the election were held today, I don’t think he would.”

While tourism initiatives are “always great” and would be “a great thing for Florida …is it a deal changer? I don’t think so,” Martinez told The Hill.

Martinez, who resides in Orlando and is now JP Morgan Chase’s senior executive in the state, said Obama has “made it a practice” to visit swing states during the primaries. “It keeps your name alive,” he said. “He’s trying to make sure people don’t forget him. And sure, he’ll get some headlines tomorrow. But does that last? No. And does it change the difficult unemployment situation? No.”

To be sure, while Obama aides are counting on winning Florida, they have also expanded their electoral map to include states like Arizona.

Meanwhile, campaign aides say their grassroots efforts in the Sunshine State are at full force.

Obama aides say the campaign has opened nine campaign offices across the state, from Tallahassee to Miami Beach. Staffers and volunteers have made more than 500,000 calls to supporters and have held more than 4,000 one-on-one meetings with supporters and more than 2,900 trainings, planning sessions, house parties and phone banks.

Aides point to a survey conducted by Tarrance Poll, a Republican firm, out on Tuesday, that has the president beating Romney 44-39 among independents. It also has Obama with a 50-41 lead over Romney among Hispanics in the state.

While Carney denied that the president’s trip to Florida was campaign-related, he did say that Obama’s announcement at the Disney theme park “will significantly help boost tourism and travel, which is an important and sometimes overlooked sector in the U.S. economy.”

But will it be enough?

“It’s hard to say,” Smith said. “There are so many moving parts. But I think one thing is certain: This is not the last time we see Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama, Bush among those paying tribute to Cokie Roberts: 'A trailblazing figure' US-Iran next moves — Déjà vu of Obama administration mistakes? Cost for last three government shutdowns estimated at billion MORE in Florida.”