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From I-4 To Nov. 6 - The Road To The White House Cuts Across Central Florida

A French reporter travels to the heart of the most pivotal swing state in the Obama v. Romney showdown where economic uncertainty is the only sure thing.

Article illustrative image Partner logo Interstate 4 near Atlamonte, FL

LAKELAND - Kate and Marcus Freeman are worried. They have been evicted from the house they could no longer afford. Voters like them could decide whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will be running the United States for the next four years. 

People like the Freemans, suddenly shifted into a lower class by the real estate crisis and still undecided about the campaign, are the target of both parties battling out in what promises to be a close election on Nov. 6.

The couple live in Lakeland, a town in the I-4 corridor that runs across Florida between Tampa and Orlando. The region has attracted political scientists, pollsters and candidates because it has almost always voted for the winning candidate. The Republicans chose Tampa for their late-August convention for this very reason. Mitt Romney plans an intensive campaign here, while Obama landed here this past weekend.

The candidate who wins the I-4 corridor, a microcosm of the U.S. that runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, will carry Florida, the most populous swing state, and probably the presidential election. The New York Times has calculated that if Mitt Romney loses Florida, he has a 0.3% chance of winning the election.

So the Sunshine state, which also decided the Gore-Bush duel in 2000, is the epicenter of the 2012 presidential campaign. And this evicted couple from Lakeland is “the heart of the heart of the target” in the battle for Florida.

Who do the Freemans think is to blame for their troubles? Mr. Romney, symbol of the predatory banking system that destroyed their dream of home ownership, or Mr. Obama, the sitting President during the financial crisis?

At the beginning of the 2000s, Marcus lost his job at a Massachusetts medical school after credit restrictions decided by then-governor Mitt Romney.  “He claims to defend the middle class, so why has he made so many people lose their jobs?” says the former accountant. As for the Bank of America, which gave the couple a mortgage loan before putting them underwater with interest rate increases, it was saved with an influx of public money by President Obama. “He saved the banks, but he forgot to save the people,” says Kate, whose salary as a teacher now supports them.

For the Freemans, the question comes down to: whom do they dislike the least? They are having a hard time making up their minds. They say they will decide after watching the big televised debates in October -- at the last minute. They are “100% sure,” though, that they will vote. “If you don't vote, you don't have the right to criticize.”

What about the rest of Florida's 200,000 voters (out of a population of 8 million) who gave Obama his victory in the state four years ago? Will they vote? “Florida has a lot of voters who are angry because of unemployment, which is higher than the national average [8.8% versus 8.1%], and the record number of housing foreclosures," notes Kelly Benjamin, who works for a consumer protection organization. "Even though the promoters and banks concerned are linked more to the Republicans, many people hold Barack Obama responsible simply because he was in office.” 

A different Florida Latino

Blacks, Latinos, and young people, whose votes decided the 2008 election, are the focus of both candidates this year, all the more because their numbers are growing. Cuban-American Alex Fox, a Democrat and president of an association that supports closer ties to Cuba, says: “The enthusiasm of 2008, the excitement of seeing the first minority President, all that has gone away. A lot of people voted for the first and last time that year.”

The Latino voters of the I-4 corridor, he points out, are very different from the stereotype of the “rich Miami Cuban who still dreams of assassinating Castro.” These Latinos are Mexican, Puerto Rican, or Salvadorian. They still believe in, and in some cases have lived out, the American dream, and they mostly vote for the Democrats, particularly as they find Mitt Romney hostile to immigration. But their precarious employment situation can make them unreliable voters."

Young blacks, too, are not sure to vote. “In 2008, ordinary people were putting up tables in front of every store around here to register voters. That kind of intense mobilization is not happening this year,” says Connie Burton, a well-known activist in the black neighborhoods of East Tampa.

The new law making registration and voting more difficult for the poor, especially blacks, who are more likely to vote Democratic, could heavily weigh on the results in Florida. Although a federal judge has just suspended the law's application in certain jurisdictions, it is likely to have devastating effects. The number of new voters registered as Democrats has plummeted by more than 20% compared to the same period in 2008.

In Central Park, a neighborhood in eastern Tampa, decrepit but still inhabited houses alternate with abandoned, sometimes vandalized shells of sealed-up houses with “For Sale” signs after owners have been evicted.

“The only businesses that are doing well around here are churches,” says Burton with some bitterness. “Obama listened to the demands from gays, Latinos, women, Jews, unions, and adapted his politics as a result. We African-Americans are 95% for Obama, but he hasn't defended us. Things haven't gotten better for us." 

Even so, it is impossible to find a single critic of the President in this segregated neighborhood. Betty Stewart, 43, is raising her seven children alone. “If Romney wins, we'll lose all our chances, we'll go back to slavery...Obama knows how to listen.”

The battle for Florida has only just begun.

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