Facing Tough Times, Economy Becomes Issue No. 1 for Florida

As Interstate 4 goes, so goes Florida, and maybe the country.

Oct. 2, 2008— -- In the swing state with the biggest electoral prize in the country, Interstate 4 could be the road to victory.

I-4 cuts across Central Florida from Tampa to Daytona. It divides the reliably Republican north and west from the heavily Democratic Miami area.

I-4 is the battleground.

"We are the fastest growing region in Florida," said Aubrey Jewett, an associate professor of political science at the University of Central Florida. "And because we have so many newcomers, they are not always necessarily so set in their political ways."

Unlike parts of the state with older voters who've generally got their minds made up, Central Florida is made up of many young groups who aren't registered with either party. The combination of demographics and new voters makes the area especially volatile.

There are 2 million new voters in Florida since the 2000 election, many of whom are spooked by the Wall Street meltdown.

The fastest growing demographic of new voters in Florida is Hispanic. Puerto Ricans, who compose a large part of the Central Florida mix, have tended to lean Democratic. But many have been swayed in recent elections, making them a crucial swing vote.

"One other issue, of course, that Hispanics care a great deal about in Central Florida is immigration. For a while, earlier this year, that was a burning issue," Jewett said. "That's kind of faded as the economy and the war in Iraq and other things seemed to be the big issues."

Polls show that Florida voters now are most concerned about the economy.

At the Tomato Express Supermarket, which specializes in products from South America, business from last year has fallen 35 percent.

Stella Siracuza, the supermarket's owner for 17 years, says that as her customers face financial stress and cut back on purchases, she feels the strain of rising costs and lower profits.

"It's very, very real for me and very real for my customers," Siracuza said. "Something has got to be done and I just don't see that's happening fast enough. I'm feeling the economy go down. I'm feeling it in sales. I feel it in my customers and I don't see anything happening fast enough."

The slowdown has shifted Siracuza's political inclinations this election cycle.

"I was a Republican, and I turned Democrat this year," she said.

Lakeland, a prosperous agricultural town halfway between Tampa and Orlando, is also facing rough financial times. Bob and Judy Shields fear they'll have to delay retirement.

"The mess that we are in right now, especially what's happened over the last couple of weeks with the bailout and everything else, I put most of the blame on the Republican Party," said Bob Shields, who is registered as an independent.

"I want someone who's a leader, who's going to be able to work with both parties to bring them together to be able to come up with some kind of remedy for the situation that we're in," he added. "I don't think anybody, any one person, has the perfect answer."

In Tampa, at Cox's Seafood, owner Faye Ann Cox's sales reflects the economic crisis. Her customers are buying more low-priced fish like salmon and tilapia, and less snapper and grouper.

Cox said she is worried about the state of the economy and her business. Though she was leaning towards Obama, now she thinks she'll vote for McCain. But Cox and other Floridians want to hear more from both candidates about how they will help small business stay afloat.

"I'm 60 years old, and they're telling me with my retirement that I'm losing in the stock market -- that if you've got 10 years to wait, it'll come back," Cox said. "Well, I might not have 10 years."