(MCT) — BOCA RATON, Fla. — Foreign policy may be the topic, but undecided voters will be the targets when Mitt Romney and President Obama hold their third and final debate Monday night.
Mobilizing supporters is a priority for both men. It is especially vital for Obama, whose backers are less likely to vote than Romney’s, polls indicate. But with the latest opinion surveys showing the race dead even, it is increasingly likely that the next president will be chosen by a relatively tiny group: swing-state voters who have yet to commit firmly to either candidate.
Florida, where the candidates will meet on the Lynn University campus not far from the turquoise Atlantic surf, is a prime example of the down-to-the-wire 2012 fight. Here, as elsewhere, debate season has shifted the presidential contest in Romney’s direction, putting even more pressure on the candidates in their final joint appearance.
“The debate’s big, and it’s particularly big for Floridians because it’s in our state,” said Susie Wiles, a Jacksonville-based strategist who ran Republican Rick Scott’s successful 2010 campaign for governor.
“We have a lot of communities here that care about foreign policy, especially in South Florida, whether it’s the Jewish community, the Cuban community, the Haitian community or the Hispanic community across the state,” said Dan Gelber, a former state senator from Miami Beach who is working with the Obama campaign. “This debate will be a big one.”
With just two weeks left until the election, both campaigns are wooing many of the same voters: non-Cuban Latinos in central Florida, Jews in South Florida and seniors and suburban women almost everywhere. Romney rallied supporters in Daytona Beach on Friday night, and Obama plans stops in Delray Beach and Tampa this week. Their running mates have also blitzed the state recently.
Republicans remain worried that Obama’s extensive get-out-the-vote operation could carry him, and Democrats are concerned that heightened enthusiasm for Romney could give him an edge. As many as 1 in 10 Florida voters may be up for grabs, and Fernando Valladrez is among them.
“I have to watch the debate Monday night to see,” said the 32-year-old father of two, who works at Walt Disney World and lives in Davenport, along central Florida’s hotly contested Interstate 4 corridor.
Valladrez voted for Obama in 2008 but says he agrees with Romney on social issues, such as abortion and whether Catholic hospitals should pay for employee insurance coverage for contraceptives, though he doesn’t like Romney’s position on immigration.
“I think I might go for Romney,” Valladrez said. “Four years of Obama have not done anything.”
Adam Garcia, 40, had been leaning toward Obama, but the first two debates helped push him toward the Republican challenger, even though the last four years have been good for him. Garcia bought a house in Celebration and works at Southwest Airlines.
“I knew what Obama could bring to the table. I didn’t know what Romney could bring to the table,” he said, adding that he could change his mind again. “If Obama does well on Monday, I’m in big trouble. I won’t know who to support.”
Anecdotal evidence of growing support for Romney among Latinos in central Florida is reinforced by recent public polling. But Matt Barreto, a University of Washington political science professor who surveys Latino opinion, contends that his independent surveys show the Latino vote continuing to trend toward Obama, in Florida and elsewhere.
Latinos, roughly 17 percent of the Florida electorate, may be slower to make a final choice, one reason there may be even more undecided voters here than in other swing states. “Latinos do demonstrate a surge in enthusiasm in the last two weeks” before an election, Barreto said.
Both campaigns are inundating the radio airwaves with Spanish-language advertising, but they’re not convincing some voters.
“I wasted my vote last time,” said Betty Varala, 41, a Puerto Rican American who supported Obama in 2008. Her husband, who worked in construction, was last employed two years ago and the couple lost their house.
Although she still has a job, in hotel management, Varala is disgusted with politicians. “They promise and promise but don’t do anything,” she said. This year, she’s not going to vote.
But other Latinos, while not as enthusiastic as last time, are still motivated to vote. They include Miguel Lopez, 40, and Mario Perez, 53, both mental health professionals sitting down for dinner at Puerto Rico’s Cafe, a restaurant in Kissimmee. They were already supporting Obama when they were forwarded a video of Romney joking about needing to be Latino to win the race, which motivated them to support the president even more.
Another group both sides are pursuing: Jewish voters, who make up about 4 percent of the statewide electorate. No one expects Romney to carry the Jewish vote, but if he can cut into Obama’s margins it could make a big difference in a tight Florida race.
With backing from casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, the Republican Jewish Coalition is airing anti-Obama TV ads in South Florida, where most of the state’s Jewish voters reside. In one, a woman with a New York accent declares that Obama is “not a friend of Israel.”
The Obama campaign, waging an aggressive counter-campaign, dispatched Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to the state over the weekend. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of South Florida, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, is joining a weeklong bus tour of the state to promote in-person early voting, which starts Saturday.
But Romney has already won over Lo Silverman, 66, a freelance writer and assistant to a chiropractor. She voted for Obama in 2008 because “I liked the way he talked,” she said. “I thought, maybe he’s a breath of fresh air.” But she’s disappointed about the federal debt and doesn’t like the way the president has treated Israel.
“I didn’t like his snub of Bibi,” she said, referring to a much-discussed incident in which Obama appeared on a TV talk show in New York as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the city, the two never meeting.
Still, there are some voters who are leaning toward Obama, as long as he doesn’t blow it Monday night. They include Shawn Porter, 40, a small-business owner in St. Cloud.
Porter thinks Romney is too conservative on social issues, and that Obama seems more open to compromise — a good thing, to Porter. Top in his mind, he said, is picking a candidate who would support his small business, which provides hunting equipment for paranormal investigations. Porter didn’t think that person would be Romney.
“Romney is more big business,” he said. “I want to see someone who is supportive of small business, not the Wal-Marts of the world.”
Elizabeth Nelson of St. Cloud also is leaning toward Obama, in part because she doesn’t like Romney’s across-the-board tax cuts, or, she said, his Mormonism.
“The only thing I like about Obama is that he’s going to raise taxes on the rich, not the middle class,” said Nelson, 54, who works in state government.
Tammy Rebello, 45, who works in the dental field, thinks Obama spent too much of his presidency on healthcare and not enough on the economy. But after learning more about Romney’s views on issues like abortion and contraception — a central focus of Obama ads — she wants to send off her absentee ballot soon.
“I think I’m just going to sit down and make up my mind,” she said.
(West writes for the Tribune Washington Bureau and Semuels for the Los Angeles Times)