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Florida: A Critical State in this Year's Presidential Election

Republican President George Bush and Democratic Senator John Kerry have spent a lot of time in the U.S. state of Florida -- one of the key battleground states in this year's presidential election. VOA's Jim Teeple reports the key to winning Florida is paying attention to important voting groups in the state that can swing an election.

The phones are ringing at Radio Mambi, the Miami radio station that most Cuban exiles listen to every morning. This popular call-in show is hosted by leading Cuban-exiles who favor a hard-line against Dictator Fidel Castro. The callers this morning are letting the hosts know they want George Bush in the White House for four more years. Host Ninoska Perez Castellon, a leading voice of Miami's Cuban exiles says most vote Republican, and most do not trust Senator John Kerry when it comes to fighting their arch-enemy, Fidel Castro.

"Kerry will certainly be soft on Castro as Democratic presidents before him, and we have, uh, President Bush who has said he will be very firm, who has said he will veto any initiative to lift the embargo."

Radio Mambi sits on Calle Ocho, Eighth Street in the heart of Miami's Little Havana. President Bush won the state of Florida in the 2000 election by 537 votes and many say it was Little Havana's Cuban-exile voters who put him over the top.

Earlier this year, Mr. Bush tightened sanctions on Cuba and placed new restrictions on visits and money transfers to the communist island. The moves were popular with many Cuban exiles, but not all. Newer arrivals who traveled to Cuba on a regular basis voiced disapproval. Joe Garcia is a leading Democratic Party activist and exile leader in Miami who is working hard for John Kerry this year. He says he believes the Massachusetts Senator is going to do better than expected.

"I think in this case, though, we have a choice between a President who has talked a lot about doing something and done absolutely nothing, or, perhaps hurt policy to try and bring democracy against a President, against a candidate like Kerry who I think has a record of listening to different voices and moving forward. To get beyond the Cuban issue, I mean, this President I believe has treated Cuba like his own backyard."

Another group of Florida voters that politicians are paying close attention to this year is senior citizens. This is John Knox Village, a retirement community in Pompano Beach Florida about 70 kilometers north of Miami and home to about 1,000 senior citizens. Peg Cruikshank is concerned about the Iraq war.

"We've lost a lot of respect from other countries and that bothers me a lot, and I just wonder how anybody is going to straighten it out -- that's one of my concerns. I'd like to ask Kerry what -- what are you going to do to get us out of that?"

In the 2000 election many senior citizens like these had their votes invalidated by problems with complicated ballots that led them to vote for candidates they did not want to vote for. This year Florida election officials have replaced paper ballots with electronic voting but controversies remain. Some of the machines do not give paper receipts and that has angered some voters. Professor Robert Watson of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida says many seniors remain angry about the 2000 election.

"A lot of Democratic voters are still upset over 2000. A lot of Republican voters feel they are concerned over a possible switch in terms of party position in 2004. So there's a heightened consciousness of what happened in 2000, and people are very aware of it."

Politicians this year are paying close attention to the swing voters of Florida. In the days leading up to November 2nd, both John Kerry and George Bush have crisscrossed the state in a last minute effort to make every vote count.