Obama has pulled ahead of McCain in Florida polls. (Photo: Zach Boyden-Holmes / Getty Images)
New Port Richey, Florida - Jim Piccillo lost his job as a bank vice president in August, applied for food stamps to support his two young daughters and swore off a life of loyalty to the Republican Party. He now volunteers here in Pasco County for Senator Barack Obama of Illinois.
Madeline Aquanno's change of heart came more recently. Two weeks ago, she said, she had planned to vote for Senator John McCain of Arizona, the Republican, who impressed her with his knowledge of the world. But as the economy began to scare her more than terrorism, she reconsidered.
"Obama is more for the people," she said, near the pool at her middle-class retirement community in Broward County. "I'm worried about the jobs that are being lost, for my son, my daughter, my granddaughter. You have to look down the line."
Here in a swing state of severe economic hurt - a leader in foreclosures where empty offices now litter strip malls - there are signs that Mr. Obama is gaining ground. In interviews and surveys, voters across Florida said the debate in Washington over how to fix the credit crisis had fueled frustration with the Bush administration and pushed them away from the Republican ticket.
The four most recent polls from late September put Mr. Obama ahead of Mr. McCain by three to eight percentage points, a sharp swing from the previous six weeks, when Mr. McCain led by as much as 10 points.
Also in Mr. Obama's favor, Florida as of August had 498,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, up from an advantage of 373,000 four years ago.
And yet, this state has a history of defying electoral math, and the challenge for Mr. Obama remains profound. For one thing, Florida's population is older than average, a demographic that tends to favor Mr. McCain.
Meanwhile, the schisms of race, sex and class opened by the bitter Democratic primary contest between Mr. Obama and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York have not fully healed. Many older Democrats quietly admit they will not vote for Mr. Obama because they fear he would put too many blacks in power, or be hamstrung in office by racial opposition.
Add to the mix a new voting system that lost 3,000 votes in a local election this summer, rumors that new laws to prevent voter fraud will lead to long lines or legal battles, and Mr. McCain's surprise pick of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate, and the Sunshine State starts to look cloudy.
That is why, many analysts say, both campaigns are focusing on the ground game that they believe they can control.
"The battle in Florida comes down to one word," said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida who served on the Florida Elections Commission under Gov. Jeb Bush. "And that's ‘turnout.' "
The Obama campaign is trying to bring out young voters and African-Americans, historically an unpredictable bunch when it comes to voting, while also peeling off former Bush supporters in Republican areas.
It now has 350 paid staffers in Florida, a budget of at least $39 million and more than 50 offices everywhere from heavily Republican Pensacola to the Democratic stronghold of Fort Lauderdale.
Mike DuHaime, Mr. McCain's national political director, acknowledged that the McCain budget was smaller (he did not give a dollar amount), though it is expected to grow now that the campaign has pulled out of Michigan. Mr. DuHaime also said it was clear that the Democrats were "trying to emulate what Republicans have done" by contesting areas where they had little hope of winning.
Still, he said he was confident of victory because with the help of the state's Republican Party, "what we have is a team in Florida that has done this before."
Pasco County is just one place where the Republicans' experience is running up against the Democrats' new arrivals. It was here, among the rural areas and exurbs north of Tampa, where President Bush ran up the big margins that helped push him to victory in 2004. Senator John Kerry, the Democratic nominee that year, did not open an office in the county, making the Obama outpost here in New Port Richey a novelty.
The handful of paid organizers in their 20s have been a welcome sight for Democrats like Dan Callaghan, 66, a retired English teacher whose son is serving his fourth tour in Iraq. The goal, Obama advisers say, is to use these local supporters to influence their Republican neighbors and turn out more Democrats, who make up about 37 percent of the county rolls.
It will not be easy. Of the 16 people Mr. Callaghan encountered during a recent canvassing trip, only four said they would vote for Mr. Obama. Of the rest, two people said they were McCain supporters, seven were undecided and three did not intend to vote.
Anecdotally, though, Mr. Obama seems to have made some headway. At Christina's, a family restaurant in downtown New Port Richey, the red leather stools at the counter held both Republicans tried-and-true, and Republicans, like Chris Hart, 48, who had begun to sour on Mr. McCain.
"Every time you turn around, he flips," Mr. Hart said. A front-desk clerk at a local Y.M.C.A, he said he was also motivated by his need for health insurance, which had recently forced him to buy antibiotics at pet stores because it was cheaper than the pharmacy.
While not sure that Democrats could get him the coverage he needed, Mr. Hart said he wished Mr. McCain focused more consistently on the issue. "I was in the Navy, in aviation like John McCain, so I feel like I'm getting punched by one of my own," Mr. Hart said.
For Mr. Piccillo, 34, skepticism arrived with the Republican convention. After voting twice for George W. Bush, he said he was especially turned off when Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor, mocked Mr. Obama's early work as a community organizer.
"Those are the people I'm looking to for help," said Mr. Piccillo, a former mortgage banker who said he had sent out 1,500 résumés without finding a job.
There are, of course, enthusiastic McCain fans in Pasco County, perhaps none more so than Bill Bunting, chairman of the county's Republican Party. Mr. Bunting said he had opened four offices this year, up from two in 2004, to compete with the Obama campaign's one.
Inside his headquarters, the walls are covered with photographs of Republican leaders, including Gov. Charlie Crist - a sign of the party's local dominance, and one reason Mr. Bunting is confident he can get far more people to the polls.
Outside, taped to the door, is another hint at why Republicans think they can win: a picture of Ms. Palin firing a gun below the Obama catchphrase "change we can believe in."
Mr. Bunting and other party officials said Ms. Palin had electrified the race. In Tampa, the day Mr. McCain announced that she would be his vice-presidential pick, 20 women showed up to volunteer at the campaign's local headquarters, said Greg Truax, the office's campaign director. In Pasco County, 95 new people appeared.
"Every one of them said they were motivated by Palin," Mr. Bunting said.
Less clear is whether that motivation can be sustained. Polls have shown support for Ms. Palin dwindling, and the McCain-Palin offices in Tampa, Pasco County and Broward County all seemed emptier than Mr. Obama's during several visits over the last two weeks.
Ms. Palin seems mainly to have crystallized partisan divisions. In Pasco County and in South Florida's strip malls and gated communities, Republicans like Dennis Colado, 50, a chemical salesman, said they found her refreshing.
But others shared the view of Sherry Kruta, a Democrat and former Clinton supporter from Highland Beach who only a month ago said she might vote for Mr. McCain. "The thought of her maybe being the president scares me to death," Ms. Kruta said.
Fear, in fact - of Mr. Obama or Ms. Palin - seems to be widespread. At Wynmoor Village, the retirement community in Coconut Creek where Ms. Aquanno said she was leaning away from Mr. McCain because his snap judgments made him seem "more like Bush," others said they were afraid of what an Obama administration might mean.
Some older residents, in whispers over lunch, said they worried that African-Americans like the Rev. Jesse Jackson would be given too much power in an Obama administration.
Gertrude Weinberg, 91, head of the Wynmoor Democratic Club, said such views were common. "They're not looking at the man as a whole," Ms. Weinberg said. "They're looking at color."
At the same time, the Obama campaign has made blacks, who supported Mr. Obama by as much as nine to one in the primaries, an important component of its Florida strategy.
On Sunday, the rapper Jay-Z is to hold a free concert in Miami where organizers are asking Obama supporters to bring friends who are not yet registered to vote.
The campaign has also recruited owners of 50 to 60 barber shops in South Florida, giving them voter registration forms to pass along to their patrons.
Steve Schale, Mr. Obama's Florida campaign manager, said the results statewide had been encouraging. "We have 600,000 African-American voters who are registered to vote who did not vote in 2004," Mr. Schale said.
Victory, though, most advisers and analysts agree, will be determined by whether Mr. Obama's supporters vote in the same proportions as Republicans.
Over the last few weeks, the Obama campaign has been battling false rumors that the state's so-called "no match no vote law" will keep people from casting ballots if the address on their driver's license does not match the address on the voting rolls. (Just the name and license number need to match, state election officials say.)
Campaign volunteers were encouraging people to vote absentee or early to avoid problems. Some supporters were even arranging with as many as a dozen friends to drive older, poorer or disabled Democrats to the polls on Election Day.
It is exactly the kind of thing that Florida Republicans have used to get out the vote and win.