The heat is on in the Sunshine State

Florida is vital to Barack Obama's re-election hopes but he faces a struggle

West Palm Beach

If Barack Obama needs willing warriors to stave off Mitt Romney this November, he found a few on Thursday night at Century Village, a sprawling retirement community in West Palm Beach. He gave them a barnstormer and they returned in kind, finishing his sentences for him, crying "Four more years" and rushing down the aisle to embrace him when he was done, barely dodging the Zimmer frame parked there by a lady with creampuff hair.

"This is kind of a wild crowd," Mr Obama noted at one point to yelps of delight from the roughly 700 clearly devoted fans, most of them elderly and Village residents, crammed into its main clubhouse.

"Whose calling?" he extemporised on hearing someone's mobile phone go off. "Is that Michelle? She's getting a little jealous".

It was a glimpse of Mr Obama as Comic-in-Chief, lapping up the love in a place where he was guaranteed to get it. It was as if his campaign staff had included Century Village, a bastion of Democrat support, to give him a boost midway through a two-day campaign blitz through Florida. Everywhere else, they knew, was going to be tough.

Nothing was funny, in fact, in the campaign for President last week which saw both sides go at each other with new degrees of venom.

While Mr Romney suffered repeated attacks for not revealing his tax returns, Mr Obama in turn was lambasted by the Republicans for appearing to say in a speech in Virginia a week ago that businessmen who reach the top in America get there not through their own skills but with the help of government. Florida, meanwhile, is where the stakes in the remaining 14 weeks of the campaign are arguably the highest. Of the roughly eight or 10 swing states that will determine the outcome, it offers the most Electoral College votes, no fewer than 29.

Mr Obama, who cancelled his last scheduled stop near Orlando last night to respond to the cinema shootings in Denver, knows that if he wins Florida, Mr Romney's path to the White House will instantly be a lot narrower.

But holding on to the state – Mr Obama took it by a narrow 51-48 margin in 2008 – will not be easy. The latest polls show Romney and Obama neck and neck in the state. No one in Century Village is taking anything for granted. "I hope to God he wins," said Maxine McKenzie-Materowski, a spring chicken at 57 years old, clasping her hands and looking to the ceiling. She does not rule out that Mr Romney might prevail. "But the only way is if he steals it by telling lies and taking things out of context."

"I am worried," admits Sandy Goldstein, 73, noting that, even in the Village, support for the Democrats and for Mr Obama is not what it used to be. "It's not really a Democratic stronghold any more. Things have changed." The room may be packed, she added, but plenty of neighbours stayed in their apartments rather than coming to see the President. "They are fearful because he is bi-racial," she whispers. "Even my friend thinks he's a Muslim."

The biggest drag on him, of course, is the faltering recovery. It is true here, for sure. Florida's unemployment rate, though down from its worst level of 11.4 per cent in early 2010, is still higher than the national level of 8.2 per cent. It is the opposing visions of each candidate on how to make things better that are at the very heart of the race, eclipsing all the other clatter about Bain Capital, tax returns or Mr Obama's alleged lack of patriotism.

The patriotism line, though, is being intertwined by Republicans with the economic debate. Thus the row over his Virginia remarks. "If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help," Mr Obama averred.

"Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."

The "you didn't build that" has become a sound bite to hurt the President. It showed, according to Marco Rubio, the junior Florida senator, seen by some as the best vice-presidential pick for Mr Romney because of the leg-up it would give him in the Sunshine State, that Mr Obama is "not a believer in the American free enterprise system".

The Democrats decry it as an example of what Ms McKenzie-Materowski pointed to – taking comments out of context.

The "that" the president referred to, they say, was the bridges not the businesses.

On economic policy itself, Mr Obama relishes his differences with Mr Romney. Indeed, while polls show deep scepticism about the President's handling of the economy in general, most voters appear to be with him on the issue of taxation and his plan to end tax cuts for richer Americans, which the Republicans want to protect.

"Their plan is to cut taxes more for the wealthy, cut more regulations on banks and insurance companies, unscrupulous lenders, cut more investments in things like education and research," Mr Obama said at Century Village. "Now, that's a good theory if we hadn't just tried it. We tried it for a decade before I got elected and it didn't work. It got us into this mess in the first place".

The mess includes the foreclosure crisis which has hit Florida harder than any other state, with the exception of California.

That Mr Romney once said the best solution was simply to let the market bottom out was an easy target for the President. "That's not a solution, that's a problem," he said.

But the other champion fight here is over healthcare. Polls show that a majority of Florida pensioners, who make up nearly a third of registered voters in the state, dislike his healthcare reform law, Obamacare.

But he has an opening in his opponent's plans for Medicare, which currently guarantees to pay the medical bills for most seniors. Mr Romney would replace it with direct subsidies to allow recipients instead to shop around for private insurance.

"He plans to turn Medicare into a voucher programme," Mr Obama said to murmurs of disgust at Century Village. "Understand how that works. If the voucher isn't worth what it takes to buy health insurance in the private marketplace, you're out of luck. You've got to make up the difference. You're on your own."

It is a notion that enrages 82-year-old Estelle Manashowitz, who recently lost her union-funded insurance plan and simply stopped taking some of her medicines that were costing $300 per prescription.

"Mr Romney doesn't care about the middle class, and he doesn't care because he's a billionaire." That's what she will be telling all her neighbours between now and 6 November, and she is why Mr Obama came here. In Florida, as Al Gore learned in 2000, the difference between victory and defeat can be a very few votes indeed.

State of play: Key battlegrounds

Created under the US Constitution, the Electoral College is the body that ultimately picks the US President. But it follows a fixed formula: each state has a predetermined number of electors according to its size. They then cast their support for whichever candidate has prevailed in the popular vote.

The winner in November must accrue at least 270 votes from the Electoral College. The outcome will rest on who prevails in a small group of key states, some with more Electoral College votes than others.

The main battleground will Florida, with 29 votes, Ohio (18), Michigan (16), North Carolina (15), Virginia (13), Missouri (10), Colorado (9), Iowa (6), Nevada (6) and New Hampshire (4).

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