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Last Updated: Monday, 4 October, 2004, 10:15 GMT 11:15 UK
Campaign column: The key to Florida

By Tom Carver
BBC correspondent in Washington

"I don't vote," says Luis, an 18-year-old Cuban-American, as if it was a matter of principle.

Puppets of presidential nominees debating
US elections: A serious business for some but not all Americans

He's standing at a bar in Miami keeping one eye on the TV where the Redskins are playing the Cowboys as he talks to me.

Of all the places in America, you would think that people would make sure they voted in Florida, where a miniscule 537 votes out of six million separated the winners from the losers last time - and incidentally decided the presidency.

But no. "I've got too much going on in my life," says Luis.

Actually I see what he means.

To a lot of Americans, the connection between voting and their daily lives has always been abstract at best. They think that the good times will keep going forever.

The sun will continue to rise. There will always be Monday night football.

They will keep making money. And if for some reason they fall on hard times, Americans usually blame their own circumstances first before the state.

Hurricane havoc

This is still a land of individualism. What has the person in the White House got to do with me?

John Kerry playing ball
John Kerry plays ball in Florida - but can he beat Mr Bush at his game?

9/11 and the continuing threat of terrorism has changed that slightly.

The polls show that people are taking more interest in this election than they have in the past.

Sixty-two million watched last week's debate between John Kerry and George W Bush - double the number who watched the last time there was an incumbent fighting for re-election in 1996.

In Florida, it has become almost impossible to predict what's going to happen.

For a start, four hurricanes in a row have played havoc with the campaigning season.

Last week in Orange County in the centre of the state, activists from both sides were stuck at home trying to put their lives back together.

When I travelled out with one group of Democratic activists, we spent the afternoon walking down suburban roads littered with debris and calling up to people nailing felt on their roofs.

For many, choosing a president was not their top priority.

Castro blunders

However, Florida's hurricane season is probably over and there is still a month left for people to focus their minds.

It is the state's fluid demographics that are giving the pollsters heartburn, especially among the Hispanics.

The Cuban community is no longer the Republican bloc it used to be.

George W Bush has made a number of blunders on Cuban policy over the last year.

First, he allowed several fugitives who managed to sail to Florida to be returned to the warm embrace of Fidel Castro.

This infuriated the hardliners who accused him of going soft on Mr Castro.

So he flipped the other way and imposed sweeping restrictions on travel by Cuban-Americans to Cuba.

This infuriated a lot of younger Cubans who like to visit their relatives on the island.

Democrat delay

The polls show that among older Cubans, who tend to be the most hardline, Mr Bush's support has slipped from 82% - the vote he got in the last election - to 70%.

President Bush touring orange groves
President Bush inspects Florida's hurricane-hit orange groves

If all other things were equal that alone would give Florida to Kerry.

But among Cubans born in the US, John Kerry is leading George W Bush 58% to 32% - a huge margin.

Not that Mr Kerry has done much to deserve this. The Democrats only got round to opening an office in Miami's Little Havana last month.

Patchwork of interests

On top of that, the Cubans are rapidly being pushed aside by other Hispanic groups, notably the Puerto Ricans who are growing at a much faster rate because they have automatic American citizenship.

Puerto Rico is an American territory, so there is no restriction on Puerto Ricans moving to the US.

The Puerto Ricans do not have their own agenda like the Cubans.

The opinion polls show that they are split roughly one third Republican, one third Democrat and one third undecided.

Whoever grabs the undecideds may well win the state.

But that depends on all the other blocs being unchanged. The Jewish vote. The retired. The military. The African-Americans.

Florida is a patchwork of different interests. And none of them can be taken for granted any more.

Previous campaign columns:

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