By Scott Powers, The Orlando Sentinel –
ORLANDO, Fla. — While Republican presidential candidates dig in for what has become a long, bitter fight for the GOP nomination, Barack Obama’s re-election campaign is quietly trying to take control in Florida.
At the southeast Orlando home of retirees Vilma and Raul Merced last week, about 40 campaign volunteers packed the family room and kitchen to watch new Obama documentary video, hear a pep talk and make a few phone calls to other prospective volunteers. Similar premier parties of “Road We’ve Traveled” were held throughout Florida.
“This is a great starting point,” said Vilma Merced, 68, who also volunteered for Obama’s 2008 campaign.
In Florida, the biggest swing state in the nation, Obama for America now has 16 campaign offices, lists of thousands of volunteers that grow daily and at least seven paid staff members. It’s spending more than $300,000 a month in Florida — months before a Republican nominee is likely to begin reorganizing a campaign here.
Democratic operative Steve Schale, who headed Obama’s Florida campaign in 2008 but is not involved this year, said this year’s effort is starting months before Version 2008, which did not hit its full stride until late summer. Obama carried the Sunshine State by 3 percentage points that year.
“They’re going to be fully functional and out there talking to voters and persuading voters while the 1/8Mitt3/8 Romneycampaign is focusing elsewhere,” he said.
In the past couple of weeks, in addition to hosting the house parties Thursday night, the Obama campaign has:
—Opened its 15th and 16th campaign offices, in Sarasota and Daytona Beach, to go along with offices already active in Orlando; Tampa; Jacksonville; Tallahassee; St. Petersburg; Melbourne; and multiple locations across Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
—Sent two targeted mailers to Florida residents, arguing that Obama’s health-care package was helping them.
—Held a statewide student summit for Obama at the University of Florida.
—Held two news conferences for Florida media, one with nurses and one with Democratic legislators, touting the health-care package.
Yet some political observers, such as Rollins College political scientist Donald Davison, don’t think the activity gives Obama much of an advantage. With the national GOP convention in Tampa in August, Republicans likely will dominate the news in Florida for several weeks next summer.
What’s more, the president’s approval ratings in Florida are in the 40s — and every poll shows him basically neck-and-neck with any Republican challenger.
“One interpretation of why the Obama organization is starting so early is they’re sensing some lack of enthusiasm, less excitement compared with 2008, and they have to try to rebuild that,” Davison said.
Or as Republican consultant Tre Evers of Orlando suggested, “Before, essentially, the phone lines were clogged with incoming calls. Now they’re having to make outgoing calls. That’s a big difference.”
It’s not such a big difference, said Megan Rivera, a 23, of Kissimmee, a Valencia Community College student who attended the Merceds’ party.
“I started volunteering in July and calling other people up and asking them to volunteer. And people were saying, ‘I’ve been waiting for your phone call. This is great. What can I do?’ ” Rivera said.
The Republican Party of Florida has its own entrenched networks of activists, strengthened by the party’s decade-long domination of state politics. It’s also highly effective at mobilizing early voters.
Social conservatives, who played a major role in President George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004, await a Republican champion to back. Tea-party groups also stand ready to back anyone who opposes Obama, even if it’s Romney, who has hardly inspired them so far, Davison said.
“They hate Obama, the tea party. It is just amazing,” Davison said.
And though they closed all their Florida offices after the primary, Republican candidates haven’t completely abandoned Florida.
Romney has several major Florida political consultants on retainer and spent $505,000 on “fieldwork” consultants through Jan. 31, organizing a base, and continues to raise money here, with recent fundraisers in Miami and Vero Beach.
“We still have one of the most vibrant and successful fundraising networks in the country here in the state of Florida,” said Brett Doster, whose Front Line Strategies group in Tallahassee remains on contract with the Romney campaign.
Rick Santorum, emerging as the other plausible Republican nominee, had spent about $30,000 on grass-roots consultants and an additional $20,000 on phone service by Jan. 31. His campaign did not respond to inquiries about whether it has anything active in the Sunshine State.