11.03.08

Dispatches From the Swing States

As the campaign enters its final hours, Daily Beast correspondents report from the battlegrounds: Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

Pennsylvania: Ana Marie Cox

Arriving in Wallingford, Pennsylvania this morning, McCain adviser Mark Salter looks like he’s been in a bar fight: There’s a cut on the bridge of his nose, and a scrape through his right eyebrow. There have been reports of Republicans and Democrats resorting to violence as this already emotional election races to a close—what happened? Ah: Yesterday he was roughhousing with senior aide Steve Schmidt and someone’s shadow boxing got a little less shadowy. He jokes that campaign in-fighting is usually less physical.

But when I ask Salter what the campaign’s strategy is to win Pennsylvania—where they are currently losing by about seven points—he growls as though he might just yet hit someone, if not me or Steve. “Why are we in Pennsylvania? Why are we in Pennsylvania?” He says, mimicking reporters’ queries. “For the fucking foliage, why do you think?”

Taking a breath, Salter responds more seriously: “We think it’s between three and four points. We think we can cut into his margins,” he says, gesturing to the suburban crowd of 1,000. But, wouldn’t it make more sense to try to shore up the white, rural vote? The demographic that delivered Pennsylvania to Hillary Clinton?

That, of course, is what Sarah Palin is for. She spent most of the last week darting around rural Pennsylvania almost exclusively, hitting Little League stadiums, gyms, diners and even a pumpkin patch. And while in those smaller towns—places like Latrobe and York—Palin drew crowds four and five times the size of McCain’s.

Ohio: Jeff Miller

Obama footsoldiers in southeastern Ohio are now battling two foes: McCain and complacency. “I sense a lot of over-confidence,” said a campaign organizer. “People feel sure he’s going to win, so they don’t have to get involved.”

That’s not acceptable to the Obama faithful, so efforts are redoubling. And yet, some campaigners are shifting their focus and their efforts from Ohio to Pennsylvania, feeling it might be more of a toss up. Nevertheless, fervor is still running high. “Someone with six kids went out with the kids and knocked on 200 doors yesterday,” said the organizer. “And an 88-year-old man knocked on 70 doors. People are working hard. Really hard.”

Another sign: Obama campaign headquarters, which seemed so roomy last week, is getting crowded. More rented tables have been set up, stacks of donated bottled water are growing tall, and volunteer numbers have jumped 50 percent from last week to this. And reinforcements are on the way. The next few days will bring a swarm of volunteer lawyers to combat election day mischief.

“Excitement is bubbling,” said the organizer. “There’s a little more stress in the air.” How do they manage to stay afloat above a rising tide of canvassers? Simple: When they return to the office, “We send them right back out.”

Florida: Ann Louise Bardach

As the final countdown begins, Team Obama has Florida’s 27 electoral votes in its crosshairs. To that end, Bill Clinton rallied the troops with Obama at a massive rally in Orlando on Wednesday night, and Al Gore was there on Friday. Democrats have learned the hard way that nothing can be taken for granted in The Sunshine State and have 350 paid staff statewide that have registered about 700,000 more voters than Republicans. In Miami-Dade County alone, the Obama campaign has 11 field offices.

Early voting began on October 20 and has been unusually heavy, with many waiting four hours on line. Whatever the outcome on November 4, the fate of the 48-year-old U.S. Embargo on Cuba and American policy toward Latin America will also be decided. The fight for Florida is being waged largely in a parallel universe, a good deal of it via Spanish-language media. It has long been an article of faith that a Democrat needed 35% of the Cuban vote to take Florida.

Should Obama carry Florida, restrictions on travel to Cuba and remittances for Cuban-Americans will likely end immediately. Soon after, diplomatic relations will likely be restored. He faces a steep climb in Cuban Miami, but has made headway and he is now leading in Florida by 3 to 4 points.

In the over-caffeinated precincts of Dade County, conspiracy perfumes the air. More than one Obama staffer told me Republican operatives are directing phone banks to urge folks to call the powerful Spanish-language radio talk shows to accuse Obama of being a “comunista” and a “marxista.”

One popular target among callers is Obama’s background as a “community organizer,” which has been likened to that of running a CDR [Committees for the Defense of the Revolution], neighborhood watch groups in Cuba renowned for their snitching. Joe Centorino of the State Attorney office said he was not surprised to hear of such doings in Dade, but responds, “What is the crime here? Remember that not all dirty tricks are illegal.”

Florida: Benjamin Sarlin

Here in Broward County, Florida, early voting has made the state a daily battleground well before election day. As many as 40 percent of Floridians are expected to cast their ballots before Tuesday, and Republican Governor Charlie Crist recently extended hours at polling sites, a controversial decision given that most early voters are believed to be Democrats.

“I can't say we're thrilled about it, but the decision had to be made. We want everybody to vote,” a regional manager for the McCain campaign in Broward, Tim McClellan told me.

I visited an early-polling station on Wednesday afternoon by Hollywood's aquamarine stucco City Hall and found a line wrapped around the block. People exiting the polls said the wait was as long as two hours, but what I didn't understand at first was that they were not complaining—they thought a mere two hours was quick. I approached people for angry quotes, expecting to scoop up an easy "Long lines frustrate Florida voters" story, but instead, I got the same replies: "No problems here. This line is going quickly!" "It's moving right along!" "I'm in no hurry. It's okay!"

It's possible that after the debacle of 2000 that led to the Supreme Court awarding the presidency to George W. Bush, Floridians have come to expect the worst from their Board of Elections.

Florida's patient voters are bad news for McCain, as any last-minute movement toward him in the polls would be diluted by already banked ballots that seem likely to favor Obama. Some McCain supporters are hoping to eke out a victory on the strength of high turnout among anti-communist Cuban voters and traditionally Democratic Jewish voters concerned about Obama's record on Israel, but the conventional wisdom here points to a narrow Obama win in the Sunshine State.

North Carolina: Jim Neal

Dwayne Andreas, the legendary Archer Daniels Midland CEO and political kingmaker, told me the advice he gave to Hubert Humphrey as he launched a campaign in the 1940s for Mayor of Minneapolis. As Humphrey rattled off his platform, Andreas interrupted. “God damn it Hubert, you don’t run for something, you run against something.” Welcome to North Carolina’s presidential and senatorial races at T-24.

The screws are tightening. I listen more so to the ground game and the mood than the pundits. Sarah Palin spoke in Raleigh last evening before a throng estimated at 40,000 —outpacing the 25,000 supporters who turned out for Obama in Raleigh 3 days earlier. Her message was baseline Republican: lower taxes, downsize government and win in Iraq. Four volunteers from my campaign and I stood in line for 4 hours and didn’t hear a single slur about race or religion or guilt-by-association. None of the “I’d vote for a nigger if Hillary lost” rhetoric I once heard on the campaign trail. Governor Palin delivered a rousing stump speech. She’s a smooth, telegenic crowd pleaser. A metric which speaks for itself: we counted but nine black people in the crowd. Blacks and first-time voters are the X-factor in the presidential election. Early voting ended yesterday; there’s no same-day registration in North Carolina. That’s why Obama returns for a final visit tomorrow to rally GOTV efforts on Tuesday.

Senator Dole pulled her “Godless America” commercials yesterday, replacing them with a kindler, gentler and more-defensive appeal. Kay Hagan had fired back with a serious of pious ads reinforcing her Christian faith. The NC Republican Party has also circulated fear-mongering mailers playing to Godlessness and gays. In reality Hagan supports state laws defining marriage between a man and a woman. She opposes discrimination while supporting the Boy Scouts’ right to make choices about its troop leaders (huh?). She’s opposed to removing "Under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance.

Dole recently lent her campaign $3 million and is receiving financial support from the RNC (thereby siphoning funds away from McCain.) I have always believed this contest has been Kay’s to lose. Dole’s gutter politics, acceptable here just 12 years ago, will be remembered as a desperate Hail Mary. Kay Hagan will be elected as our next US Senator.

One final observation on the Godless imbroglio. When Obama was confronted by ties to his non-secular minister, he wasted little time in distancing himself and extolling his own Christian faith. Rightly or wrongly, Rev. Wright became a controversial figure; it’s hardly surprising that an advisory board member to the secular Godless Americans PAC would be as well. Hagan’s strategy, formulated in a conference call with Democrat power brokers last Thursday evening, has been to attack Dole while extolling her own Christian faith. Rather than distance herself from the GA PAC advisor who hosted the fundraiser at his Boston home, Hagan has relied on implausible denial. Neither Obama nor Hagan took the opportunity to affirm the First Amendment rights of all Americans: atheists, secular humanists, agnostics, Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. Political campaigns have yet to harmonize with our Constitution.

Now there’s something for all of us to hope for.