- The Washington Times - Monday, October 3, 2011

ORLANDO, Fla. — Deborah Cox-Rousch looked on in dismay three years ago as Barack Obama turned Hillsborough County blue and then went on to capture Florida and the White House — ending her county’s eight-year run as a GOP stronghold in presidential elections.

“I said, ‘Never again,’ ” Mrs. Cox-Rousch said.

Since then, she’s been elected GOP county chairwoman and has been busy laying the groundwork to avoid a repeat of 2008, when Mr. Obama’s 10,000-vote victory in Hillsborough County rippled across the Interstate 4 corridor and through the state, reinforcing the region’s reputation as a harbinger for presidential elections.

“We say in Hillsborough County, you can’t win Florida unless you win the I-4 corridor and you can’t win the nation if you can’t win Florida,” Mrs. Cox-Rousch said.

Dotted with citrus groves and scrub pine woods and populated by the retirement communities of Polk County and the burgeoning areas around Orlando, the 132-mile stretch of highway has become known as a microcosm for the entire Sunshine State.

The corridor is home to two of the state’s top three media markets, Tampa and Orlando, and about half of the state’s Republicans — a fact that likely will be driven home in the coming months now that the state has moved its primary date to Jan. 31, putting it the fifth in lineup on the nomination calendar and forcing GOP candidates to take note.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, summed up the I-4 corridor’s electoral importance in presidential and statewide races in two short sentences.

“I think its about 52 percent of the vote,” he said. “You need to win it.”

House Speaker Dean Cannon, a Republican, said the region is unique in that it splices together diverse geographic, demographic and economic strands that tend to be more isolated or scattered in other pockets around the state.

“South Florida tends to trend more to the left, north Florida tends to trend more to the right and the battleground is in the I-4 corridor,” Mr. Cannon said. “It has sort of a great mixture of north and south, urban and rural, tourism, agriculture and high tech. It is sort of the core of winning Florida, and I think Florida is an indispensable part of winning the White House.”

Come 2012, Susan MacManus, a political-science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, predicted the suburban counties of Pasco, Hernando, and Polk are among those that will provide a good idea of whether Mr. Obama can repeat his success.

“What helped Obama in the 2008 election was the fact that a lot of the suburban counties went for him, and in 2012 that is a big question mark, because those are the areas that have the highest home foreclosure and unemployment rates among middle-class voters,” she said. “So, I think that’s the real problem area for him right now.”

The region’s importance in the GOP nomination race has been clear.

Republicans gathered here this month for back-to-back debates in Tampa and Orlando. Ms. MacManus said the region has seen more visits from the GOP White House hopefuls than any other part of the state.

In the third edition of “Politics in Florida,” Ms. MacManus and her colleagues write about how the region has served as a bellwether for the state and the nation, supporting the successful presidential bids of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Mr. Obama. The region became infamous in the 2000 election, when Al Gore and George W. Bush split the vote, leading to the historic recount.

Mrs. Cox-Rousch and some of her fellow GOP leaders from the region now say they’re working on ratcheting up voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts in the counties and suburbs straddling the route that knifes through the midsection of the state, connecting Daytona Beach in the east with Tampa in the west.

“We are working hard on a door-to-door basis to talk to people,” said Danny Sexton, chairman of the Osceola County GOP. “We are starting a monthly voter registration drive at our local community college to reach young voters. We are putting the last touches on a Latino outreach program to change voter registration in the Hispanic community, as well as sign up new voters.”

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