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Candidates eye voters on Florida's I-4

Highway corridor home to diverse group of voters

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ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) -- Every day, an army of campaigners fans out across central Florida's "I-4 corridor" in search of suburban moms, transplanted Puerto Ricans, teenagers and any other potential voter wavering between John Kerry and George W. Bush.

Spanning the state from Tampa on the west, through Disney World and tourist playground Orlando, to Daytona Beach, the famous race-car hub on the east, the region named after the interstate highway that links the coasts is considered by election analysts to be the key to victory in Florida.

"It's the swing part of the swing state," said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political scientist.

"It's the most important part of the most important state in the most important election," said Patti Sharp, an Orlando-area director of America Coming Together, or ACT, a voter mobilization group committed to defeating the Republican Bush.

Bush won the seven counties that touch Interstate 4 by 4,400 votes in 2000. In the 14 counties analysts consider the full I-4 corridor, his margin was about 44,000 votes while his margin in the entire state was just 537 votes.

No trip to Florida by Kerry, the Massachusetts senator who carries the Democratic banner, or Bush, the incumbent whose brother Jeb is the state's governor, is complete without a stop in the I-4 corridor. Airwaves are filled with political ads.

But spurred by the 2000 vote fiasco and the small margin that eventually decided the presidency, Republicans and Democrats are waging an old-fashioned political dogfight, a ferocious door-to-door battle in a region where they believe there are more undecided and "persuadable" voters than anywhere else.

"It's different this year. It's a ground game," said Sharp, a veteran activist. "It's been an air game [broadcast advertising] for a long time but people are going back and knocking on doors."

Republicans in Pinellas County, near Tampa, recruited 4,800 volunteers, triple the number in past elections, to end a string of Democratic presidential victories in the county going back to 1988, said Peggy O'Shea, a local party official.

"It's been close. Democrats have won but not by much. It's doable," she said.

Of Florida's nearly 9.9 million registered voters, about 3.9 million, or 40 percent, live in the I-4 counties. About 1,481,000 are registered Republican and 1,469,000 Democrat, according to state figures from August.

The I-4 region has 685,000 of the state's 1.7 million voters who are not registered with any party.

Campaigners from both sides are searching for voters like Christian Garcia, 23, who moved to Orlando from Puerto Rico two years ago and will cast his first presidential vote on November 2.

"A lot of Puerto Ricans are talking about the election. They have very mixed emotions as to Kerry or Bush," said Garcia, who favors Bush.

Garcia said health care and the economy, rather than the Iraq war, head his personal agenda.

"It's hard to find a job for young people. Bush has to do a better job creating jobs but whoever wins has to concentrate on the economy and the middle class."

From a strip mall office decorated with street maps of Orlando, Patti Sharp dispatches dozens of campaigners every day. Some of them have temporarily moved here from other parts of the country, recognition of another tight race in a state decided only after five weeks of court battles four years ago.

"People in the Hispanic community are interested in, number one, health care, and number two, education," said Alberto Perez, a bilingual ACT canvasser who relocated from New York.

Northern Florida and the wealthy southwest are largely Republican turf. Southeast Florida, the most heavily populated part of the state that includes Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach, is mostly Democratic.

But I-4 provides a rich mix: blue and white collar workers, young professionals, Puerto Ricans and South and Central Americans, traditional Republicans and Democrats. Analysts say the area's demographics are changing, with tens of thousands of newcomers who have not formed solid party alliances.

In Orlando's Orange County, which chose Democrat Al Gore in 2000 after backing Republicans in previous elections, Hispanic voters for the first time outnumber blacks.

"This is a low-rise New York City. It's just as diverse," said Doug Head, the Orange County Democratic Party chairman who says Democrats have out-registered Republicans 2-1 since 2000.

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