Clinton helps Obama launch fight for Florida

ORLANDO -- Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose history-making presidential campaigns divided the Democratic Party, joined forces Monday for an exuberant outdoor rally in what Clinton called "the battleground of the battlegrounds."

Making their first joint appearance since July, the former political rivals walked on stage here with their arms wrapped around each other's waists. Obama led the crowd — estimated at 50,000 by the Orlando Fire Department — in chanting "Hil-lar-y."

Clinton, who asked during the primary why Obama couldn't close the deal with voters, transformed the line to work in his favor: "Now is the time to close the deal for Barack Obama."

The New York senator took a shot at Republican presidential candidate John McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, who has sought to appeal to Clinton's supporters. Mocking the Alaska governor's frequent exhortation to "Drill, baby, drill," Clinton said Democrats have "a new slogan."

"Jobs, baby, jobs," she said. "That's what we're for."

Clinton, who won this state's primary, appeared with Obama as he kicked off a two-day swing here on the first day of early voting statewide. Obama and McCain are in a closely fought contest for the state's 27 electoral votes, which made George Bush president in 2000 and helped elect him again in 2004.

Obama urges his supporters to take advantage of the opportunity to avoid the lines being predicted on Election Day.

"Go vote," he said. "You don't know what will happen Nov. 4."

Florida is one of six states where polling places opened Monday for voters who want to cast their ballots before Election Day. Three other states will open early voting this week.

The early vote is a key factor in Florida, where 36% of the ballots in the 2004 presidential election were cast early, according to Steve Schale, who directs Obama's campaign in the state.

The GOP also is working to turn out early voters.

"It's going to be very close in Florida," state GOP Chairman Jim Greer said in a phone interview Monday as he barnstormed with the state's Republican governor, Charlie Crist.

Greer said he's not concerned about statistics showing Democrats widening their lead among registered voters in Florida this year. "Democrats are just registering anything that breathes," Greer said. He said Democrats out-registered Republicans in 2004, yet Bush won the state.

"Republicans in Florida have the best voter-turnout operation in the nation," Greer said. One barometer: 100,000 more Republicans than Democrats have cast absentee ballots.