By JULIE PACE
APOPKA, Fla. — President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney have this in common when it comes to Florida: They’re both worried about the biggest election battleground prize.
The president has an edge here, but Democrats fear the advantage may be fleeting and fret about Florida’s undecided voters. They’re also nervous about legal battles over state voter laws that could cut into Obama’s support among minorities.
Republicans are concerned that Romney hasn’t closed the deal in a state hampered by joblessness and home foreclosures, even though he’s cast himself as the economic fixer and, along with his allies, has spent significant money and time here.
The state is especially critical for Romney.
With his paths limited toward the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House, Romney’s chances are far more difficult if he doesn’t claim Florida’s enormous cache of 29. That explains why he’s starting to pour even more money into television commercials here now that he has access to general election funds. Both campaigns expect Republicans to outspend Democrats on the airwaves in the final weeks of the race in a state that already has seen each side spend roughly $60 million on TV and radio ads.
The situation in Florida — and the campaigns’ anxieties about it — reflects the overall state of the presidential race.
A new smattering of polls shows Obama ahead by several percentage points in key states including Florida, Ohio and Virginia, as well as nationally. The clock is ticking toward November, Obama clearly has momentum on his side and Romney faces dwindling opportunities to change the race’s trajectory.
Without Florida, Romney would have to win all of the states that are leaning his way, as well as all of the others that Obama won four years ago but now are too close to call — Ohio, Virginia, Iowa, Colorado, Nevada and New Hampshire — and still pick up two more electoral votes elsewhere, in states that are even more difficult. The uncertainty of Florida partly explains why Romney now is making a play for Wisconsin. That state, which offers 10 electoral votes, has voted for Democrats for decades, but the GOP has seen down-ballot success there lately and Romney running mate Paul Ryan lives there.
Obama already has far more states — and, thus, electoral votes — in his likely-winners column. Because of that edge, he can hold the White House without Florida as long as he wins most of the other toss-up states. His standing has suffered here along with the state’s economy, four years after he won the state by cobbling together a coalition of Hispanics, African-Americans and independents to go with other Democrats.
This year, undecided voters, and those not entirely sold on their candidates, may well tip the balance here. Few seem hot on either contender. And most say the economy is Issue No. 1 in a state whose 8.8 percent unemployment rate is among the highest in the nation, as is its foreclosure rate.
Kathy Belcher, a Democrat from Apopka, is leaning toward Obama but says she would be willing to give Romney a chance if he offered more details on the economy and health care.
“It seems with Obama, people are getting a handout,” Belcher said. So, she added, she’d considering voting for Romney if he could assure her that won’t happen under him. “But that hasn’t happened.”
Donna Sprenkle, a registered Republican from Apopka, plans to vote for Romney — reluctantly. She doesn’t think he’s explained well enough how he would fix the economy.
“I know somebody just can’t overnight bring it back,” Sprenkle said.
These are among the persuadable voters Obama, Romney and their top surrogates are courting as they make weekly campaign stops in Florida. Both candidates are expected to visit next week as the latest public poll — an NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist Poll released Thursday — shows Obama with a 49 percent to 44 percent advantage over Romney.
““It should come as no surprise that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are having trouble in Florida,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. “We already tried the Romney-Ryan economic scheme that trickles from the top down.”
But many Democrats caution that the numbers could change. And some party insiders who expect the race to come down to three states — Florida, Ohio and Virginia — say it’s still Florida that concerns them the most given the state’s unpredictable voting patterns. Republican George W. Bush won the state twice, including in the 2000 recount, before Obama won it four years ago.
“Even with all of the missteps by Romney, Obama hasn’t been able to put it away,” said Steve Vancore, a Florida-based Democratic pollster. “There’s still time for this to change.”
Romney aides argue that convincing voters Obama is to blame for the state’s weak economy is the Republican’s best chance of winning Florida. To press its economic message, Romney is running an ad here that emphasizes the housing crisis and argues that Florida voters aren’t better off than they were four years ago. More ads are expected on housing and the economy through the fall.
Romney’s team doesn’t mention that Republicans governed the state before, during and after the recession.
“What is somewhat troublesome is that, with the economy the way it is, Romney isn’t doing better,” said Alex Patton, a Republican consultant in Florida. He suggests Romney broaden his pitch to other issues, saying: “He needs a little extra push.”
That may come in the form of more TV ad dollars.
Obama’s campaign hopes to counter that GOP cash infusion with an extensive registration and get-out-the-vote operation that includes more than 80 field offices across the state. Romney’s campaign has 47 offices in Florida.
But Democrats worry that their efforts could be hampered by the legal wrangling in Florida over early-voting and voter-registration laws. Florida voters across the state will probably be limited to no more than eight days of early voting, down from 14 days in 2008. Obama’s advantage among people who voted early was one of his keys to victory.
The state’s GOP-led Legislature and Republican governor also instituted new requirements on voter registration drives, including a 48-hour deadline for turning applications in to election officials. A federal judge recently blocked that provision, but same Democrats say it had already slowed their registration efforts.
Democrats also are concerned about holding their advantage with Hispanics, particularly the Puerto Rican population that’s growing rapidly along the swing-voting Interstate-4 corridor in central Florida. Romney is trying to chip away at Obama’s advantage with Hispanics — the Democrat carried them with 57 percent of the vote in 2008 — by accusing him of breaking his promise of comprehensive immigration reform.
Obama backers say Romney may have an easier time softening the president’s support among Jewish voters in Democratic-friendly South Florida, some of whom question Obama’s commitment to Israel. The GOP has fodder, including the Democratic convention fight over including a reference in the party platform to Jerusalem being Israel’s capital, an apparent split between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Iran, and the tumultuous events at U.S. embassies in the Middle East.
Democrats had been hoping to narrow the GOP’s advantage among seniors after Romney chose Ryan as his running mate. The Wisconsin congressman is the architect of a controversial budget proposal that includes an overhaul of Medicare. But strategists in both parties say Republicans appear to have mitigated that risk by aggressively countering Democratic criticism on Medicare just after Ryan was picked.
Associated Press Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.
Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC.