BOCA RATON, Fla. — Once again, it could all come down to Florida.
There is, arguably, no greater plum for the candidates at this point than the hotly contested Sunshine State, whose 29 Electoral College votes could put Barack Obama over the top or relieve Mitt Romney of the necessity of sweeping multiple smaller states.
Romney resumed his campaign there on Wednesday with three stops in Tampa, Jacksonville and Coral Gables. He talked up his economic expertise and said it was time for a "new course," but refrained from direct attacks upon the president, who was still dealing with the aftermath of Sandy.
The Obama campaign said that the president would make another visit to Florida before Election Day, but did not provide details.
Going by the polls, it is almost impossible to tell who is ahead.
Just a few days ago things seemed to be leaning toward Romney.
"Romney has pretty much nailed down Florida," said Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling and Research, which conducted a poll for the Tampa Bay Times, showing Romney up by 6 percentage points over Obama.
But this might be an overstatement, according to Nate Silver of the New York Times’ “fivethirtyeight” blog.
“Mason-Dixon is a strong polling firm, but their results have been more Republican-leaning than the consensus in Minnesota and most other states,” Silver wrote last week.
Other polls have Obama up by 1, Romney up by 1, or Romney up by 3.
So it’s still a wide open race that both men are determined to win, and analysts say the Latino vote could be the tiebreaker.
The Hispanic population in Florida is the third largest in the country, making up 16 percent of eligible voters. This should be good news for Obama: Hispanics tend to support him over Romney by more than three to one.
But unlike the rest of the country, Florida’s Hispanic population has a large Cuban contingent — almost a third. Cuban Americans lean more toward the Republicans, and the Romney campaign is seizing on this.
On Tuesday the campaign released an ad, all in Spanish, linking Obama to the likes of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and to Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuba’s President Raul Castro and the niece of Fidel, still the most hated symbol of the revolution among Florida’s Cuban community.
According to Evelina Santiago, who moved to the United States from Mexico 25 years ago, Obama is the only choice.
“We love Obama,” she said. “I think most Latino voters do. Many are confused about Romney; they do not know what his purpose is, and they are very worried about his immigration policies.”
Santiago conceded that Cubans were in a different category, and would probably vote differently. “They only think about their own interests, getting their land back in Cuba,” she said. “They are not thinking about this country.”
Other Hispanics are influenced by the Catholic Church, she said, particularly on issues like abortion and gay marriage. This could depress support for Obama, who has espoused pro-choice social policies and supported equal rights for same-sex couples.
However, studies show some of those attitudes are now changing. More than half (52 percent) of Latinos surveyed in October by Pew said they support gay marriage.
When she came to this country, Santiago had no professional training. Now she is a medical technician, with a husband who is an aircraft mechanic. They have a son at Duke University, and they are living the American Dream.
“We have worked hard to get what we have,” she said proudly. “It takes effort to get an education, to get citizenship.”
But even with her US passport, Santiago does not feel safe. “Romney was very hard-line during the primaries,” she said. “People feel like they could get arrested, or something. They incarcerated the Japanese during the war, didn’t they?” she asked, referring to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Santiago knows things are difficult, but she is willing to cut the president some slack.
“The work he did in these four years will be difficult to finish,” she said. “He needs more time.”
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Gordon Tolbert, who was born in Miami but later moved to Minnesota, has returned to campaign for Obama.
“I’m not so worried about Minnesota,” he said. “But we can never allow a repeat of what happened in Florida in 2000."
The contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore was so close — just 537 votes in Bush’s favor — that Gore demanded a recount. The ensuing battles over hanging chads and butterfly ballots eventually ended up in the Supreme Court, which in a rather contorted decision gave Florida — and the presidency — to Bush.
Tolbert has been knocking on doors in southern Florida for over a month, and is convinced that Obama has the state sewn up.
“The Hispanics are the most passionate about Obama,” he said. “They really get it.”