Candidates Scramble for Votes Ahead of Florida Primary

Republicans are competing for the support of Florida's diverse ethnic communities, while Democrats are certain the state's seniors will stick with Obama.

BOCA RATON, FLORIDA – Ahead of Tuesday's Republican primaries in Florida, only the two leading candidates, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, are still competing over the state. Ron Paul, with only 6% support in the polls, chose to spend his time campaigning in Maine, while Rick Santorum, with 14%, called off his campaign in the state in order to take care of his daughter Bella, who was hospitalized over the weekend due to a genetic illness. With Romney again leading in the polls, Gingrich has redoubled his attacks against Romney, calling him "dishonest."

Herman Cain, who suspended his presidential campaign amid allegations of sexual harassment and marital infidelity, has endorsed Gingrich. Meanwhile, as the Republican struggle raged on, Florida's Democrats were busy organizing gatherings of their own, opening offices across the Sunshine State.

Romney - Reuters - Jan 2012

In Boca Raton, the new office is squeezed between "Hotdogopolis" and another restaurant called "Spicy Ginger: Asian American Cuisine." Inside the office, however, the volunteers receive the same pizza that is given out at the Republicans' events. In any case, it isn't the pizza that makes people shout "yeah!" every time they are asked if they are fired up and ready for the campaign.

"Disappointed?" Sheryl Shetsky, a local Jewish activist, sounds almost offended at the idea she could be disappointed by President Barack Obama's policies since the 2008 elections. "When he finishes his second term, he is going to be remembered as one of the best presidents we've ever had."

She says she is not worried about the state of the country. "It's a lot better now than it used to be with President Obama's predecessor", she says. "We can't let people again use fear mongering. It's ridiculous that people repeat what they hear on 'Fox News.' I am fully pleased with what he's done for Israel. This year he's given Israel more aid than ever - even Netanyahu praised him, so it's good enough for me.

"He is tough, he fights terrorists, I think he really makes us very safe. Bush had seven years to get Bin Laden - did he do it? Did Bush bring our kids back from Iraq? He tried hard to reach across the aisle, but the Republicans just wanted him to fail from day one. Besides, Obama is smart, he even has a great sense of humor. He keeps a lot of his promises. I am very proud of him. Just let the man finish his work."

For her, as a brain tumor survivor and a mother who had difficulty providing medical insurance for her kids after her husband passed away, healthcare reform is the top issue. "Republicans, they don't want to help anyone below them", she says. "And it scares me they want to reverse it all. It scares me on the abortion issue, they want to take from women the right to choose – the last thing we need is more unwanted children."

Florida - Natasha - Jan 2012
Natasha Mozgovaya

Mark Alan Siegel, chair of the Palm Beach County Democratic Party, says Israel is an important issue, but not the only one Jewish voters consider. "People at the community care about Israel, but not necessarily the Jabotinsky version of Israel," he says. "People who care only about one issue are called fanatics."

Siegel predicts Newt Gingrich "will get crushed" in Tuesday's elections and disagrees with the notion that a Gingrich victory would ultimately serve Obama. "That's what people used to say about Reagan, that he's way too conservative for people to vote for him," he says. He also thinks Rick Santorum's policies will bring about a "theocratic state."

As for the Democrats, Siegel says the number of people that packed the event shows that the volunteers are excited and not apathetic. "Seventy-eight percent of Jews voted for Obama in 2008 and, well, there will always be the other twenty-two percent." He hints that perhaps some people dislike Obama for reasons related to racism. "Aren't there people in Israel who discriminate against the Ethiopian Jews?" he asks.

Democratic Congressman Ted Deutch, who drops by to make sure everyone is ready for the elections, tells me that support for Israel is a primary issue among his constituents, especially in light of the Iranian nuclear threats and attempts to delegitimize Israel. "The president's support of Israel is ironclad," he says. Later, he repeats this phrase to the cheering of volunteers.

What about the "excitement gap" and disappointment with Obama's performance in office? "There are a lot of seniors in South Florida. The more they see of their choices and hear about the Republicans' plans to privatize Social Security and dismantle Medicare - trust me, they'll get excited."

Archley Bissereth, the restaurant's 31-year-old owner, whose family immigrated to Florida from Haiti in the 1980s, says he "never expected a perfect president," but Obama "is way better than the one before him - or anyone running against him."

"They are definitely and clearly against immigrants," he says. "It's a very important issue for me and for the rest of the Haitian community. Two of my brothers served in Iraq, and Obama brought them home safe," he adds.

Hispanic voters are another community that is being courted by all sides.

"Republicans are trying hard," says Hugo Neil Mendez, the vice president of the Democratic National Committee in Palm Beach County. "But the Hispanic community is getting more educated. We are working on the turnout - trying to convince people that after 10-20 years in the country, it's about time to register to vote and become a responsible citizen."

He says Mitt Romney can put out ads in Spanish, but immigrants still won't like the fact he pays less than 15% taxes. Mendez believes that even the Cuban immigrant community, which (unlike the majority of Mexican-Americans) traditionally supports the Republicans, is changing. In the last elections, he says, Cuban immigrants were split down the middle, which he attributes to changing views among the younger generation. "Now the challenge is to get immigration reform passed, along with the DREAM Act," he says.