On one side of Semoran Boulevard there’s Lecheron el Barrio, a Puerto Rican restaurant where a banner boasts of President Barack Obama’s summer visit. Inside, servers dish up steaming plates of pulled pork and rice and beans beneath a photo of Obama, and a largely Spanish-speaking clientele gathers in what might be the unofficial headquarters of Orlando’s Puerto Rican vote.
"Everybody I know is for Obama. It’s the culture here," said Judy Torres, 39, who was born in Puerto Rico and who dropped in recently for lunch with her husband, Luis, and 2-year-old son Cristian. Pointing to the photo of the president, she said proudly that her two daughters were at the restaurant that day.
Across the street, the Republicans have their local headquarters. Fox News airs on a big-screen television. Between calls, volunteers lunch on chicken nuggets and fries from Chick-fil-A. A bright pink sign reminds them of a deficit-based talking point: "42 cents of every dollar is borrowed." Beneath it, volunteers work the phones to urge voters to support Mitt Romney, part of a four-office brigade that combined has made more calls than any other Republican effort in the country.
“We’re not going to convert Democrats,” said Lew Oliver, chairman of the Orange County Republican Party, who oversees the phone bank. “Our main effort is making sure our Republicans vote. In a state where we are inside the margin of error in the polls, if 2 or 3 percent of our people show up more than theirs, we win. We know that works.”
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Crowded with garish strip malls, used car lots and billboard advertisements for personal injury law firms, the boulevard might best represent the even divide among the voters along the Interstate 4 corridor across central Florida. In the heart of the biggest battleground state of all, both campaigns are fighting for Semoran Boulevard and every other inch of ground from Tampa to Orlando, an expanse that could well determine the outcome of the presidential election in Florida, if not the nation. Obama and Romney are neck and neck in the state.
The Interstate 4 corridor is home to not only 43 percent of the state’s electorate, but also to just about every sort of voter who exists in America. They include minority and ethnic voters in Orlando and Tampa, suburban voters in the bedroom communities surrounding the two cities, and rural voters in the strawberry fields and orange groves between the two urban centers.
"The I-4 corridor is critical," said Brett Doster, a senior adviser to Romney’s campaign in Florida. "They’re ready for a hopeful message, but one that has some gravity behind it, and one that has a record of success behind it."
Florida’s other population centers are far more predictable. South Florida votes reliably Democratic in presidential elections. With the exception of Democratic strongholds near Tallahassee and Gainesville, other parts of the state, particularly the Panhandle, are more likely to vote Republican.
Slightly younger and more transient than the rest of the state, voters along I-4 went for Obama in 2008 after voting for President George W. Bush in 2004. Obama can’t count on a repeat, though. Some of those who enthusiastically backed Obama in 2008, including some blacks, have little love for him this time around.
"Obama broke all of his promises," said Sanjai Stesty, 28, a black voter raised in Miami who now lives in Orlando. A nurse, Stesty said Obama and Romney both are too close to Wall Street. He plans to sit out this election.
To make up any loss of enthusiasm, Democrats look to volunteers such as Lynette Acosta, a 34-year-old Obama campaign volunteer with Puerto Rican roots, to help turn out the vote.
When she meets uncommitted voters, she tells them about her own family. Her mother was raised in public housing in Puerto Rico. Her parents took on a government-backed loan to buy a house. A Pell Grant paid for college. Even now, her brother and his wife go without health insurance because their part-time jobs don’t offer it. Their children rely on Medicaid. Acosta, whose living room in her spacious home serves as a volunteer phone bank twice a week, tells people that her family couldn’t have made it without some help. "In my family, it took three generations to get here," Acosta said.
Republicans say they have a strong story for voters, too. The Romney campaign in Florida believes it has rebuilt the campaign apparatus that they say let them down four years ago. And it says it has a message that’s more attractive to Florida voters who’ve seen rough economic times, including a housing crisis.
"We are currently capable of not only encouraging our Republican base to turn out, but we’re also capable of taking our much stronger message and putting it into every precinct in the state of Florida," said Doster of the Romney campaign.
“The next four years with Obama? I don’t even want to think about how bad it could be,” said Dan Pressler, 49, a Republican from Pinellas County who was watching one of the presidential debates at a bar in Clearwater.
Underlying just about every discussion with voters is fear.
Many worry that something hard-earned could be taken away. Frothed up by millions in campaign advertising, voters hear mixed messages every time they turn on the radio, drive past a billboard, or watch television. They hear from both sides that Medicare is under threat, that their taxes might go up, and that women might lose some rights.
"This is the first time I’ve ever followed politics this closely," admitted James Layton, 64, a Republican who was eating lunch with his son at the Strawberry Hut in Plant City, a farm town east of Tampa. Layton said he began paying attention to Romney because he also is a Mormon. But it’s Romney’s background as a businessman that most appeals to Layton, who owns a landscaping business. Layton said he is concerned when Obama talks about the middle class, because he thinks that actually means helping out the poor rather than small business owners.
Obama "just hasn’t done the job," Layton said. "He promised lots of things and put us in worse shape than we’ve been. We’ve got to have a business-type president right now, and that is what Romney is."
Like many in the swing state, Donnie Smith, 54, of Polk City, defies easy categorization. Smith lives in a conservative and mostly rural stretch of the I-4 corridor that voted for Romney, but he’s a loyal Democrat who belongs to the Boilermakers Union. Smith, who during his own treatment for throat cancer met patients reliant on Medicare and Medicaid, fears that the neediest people will lose out if Romney is elected. He has health insurance through his union and plans to vote again for Obama.
Smith, leaning against his pickup on a boat ramp one recent afternoon, reflected on his life while he was waiting with his nephew for catfish to bite in Mudd Lake in rural Polk County. "Am I better off than I was four years ago? Yes. Yes I am," Smith said. "I go to work every day, I see Romney signs, and I want to tear them down."