Finally... Florida

A rogue state meets presidential candidates who pine for its fickle heart

It's May 21, and residents of Sunrise Lakes condos are getting a fresh lesson in the virtues of punctuality. Stragglers who arrive at the Hillary Clinton campaign stop three hours early sit in an overflow room. Others turn back toward home. They are late for the candidate but early for dinner. It's a quarter to 2.

In the clubhouse ballroom, a balding lounge singer in black vest and bow tie croons the Dean Martin number "When You're Smiling (The Whole World Smiles With You)." He's accompanied by a balding, tuxedoed keyboardist who soon takes the mic to warble Frank Sinatra's "Theme From New York, New York." Hours move glacially in this room.

Thank God for accidental entertainers like Mario Cusuga, a diminutive Filipino who's dressed in all black and wears an Elvis-style pompadour and yellow-tinted glasses. He clutches a dog-eared photograph of himself alongside supermodel Cindy Crawford at a local Rooms to Go.

"I have never been a Muslim," Obama tells the Boca synagogue.
Zuma Press
"I have never been a Muslim," Obama tells the Boca synagogue.

What does Cindy Crawford have to do with a Clinton rally? a reporter asks.

Cusuga whips a photo album from his bag to reveal a few hundred photographs of himself standing next to all manner of celebrities. President George W. Bush, aging supermodel Paulina Porizkova, the king of Ghana (Ghana has a king?), Vivica A. Fox, Al Gore, the queen of Vietnam (Vietnam has a queen?), Tom Hanks. Each appears baffled to be filling a photo frame with a grinning Cusuga, who is flashing a thumbs-up, his trademark.

Cusuga has come from West Palm Beach to add Clinton to his collection.

Shortly after 4 p.m., the traveling press arrives — a sign that Clinton can't be far behind. They're underwhelmed by what they've seen of Sunrise from the bus: "Bethesda with palm trees," grumbles a tweed-coated reporter as he takes his reserved seat.

At a quarter to 5, Clinton finally appears, smiling like a Lotto winner, bounding up the stage with her daughter, Chelsea, who gets the privilege of introducing "my mom, the next president of the United States..."

Well, one out of two ain't bad.

Clinton wastes little time reminding audience members of what happened in 2000, lest they forget that disputed Florida votes swung an election to that ogre Bush.

"We're seeing that right now in Zimbabwe," Clinton says. "Tragically, an election was held, the president lost, and they refused to abide by the will of the people. So we cannot take for granted our precious right to vote."

Wait — did she just compare this Sunshine State to Zimbabwe? Harsh. But no one seems to mind. Minutes after the speech, two elderly ladies are still sitting at their table basking in the Hillary-ousness. "She will try to fight for all the things that we always wanted but didn't have a voice," Lillian says. "Only a woman could voice this for us."

Ruth boasts that she electioneered for Clinton in January. Asked to assess Obama, she says: "I would vote for him, but I wouldn't electioneer for him. It's the principle of it."

What principle is that, exactly?

"Just the principle," she says, patting the reporter's forearm. "You know what I mean."

Soon, the Clinton campaign bus chugs south for an appearance at the University of Miami's BankUnited Center. This is a destination for the Hillary hardcore, judging by the thousands of people who form a line outside the arena, all festooned with Hillary buttons and T-shirts.

Hillary campaign staffers leave nothing to chance. Like a florist making a bouquet, they pluck a multiracial, multigenerational backdrop from the crowd.

Doris Greene, a 46-year-old teacher from Miami, isn't stage-worthy, but she's thrilled with her front-row seat, the better to showcase a pink T-shirt with four portraits of Hillary, Warhol-style. "Oh, have you seen her lately?" Doris says. "She's been through so much. So much. But she still looks so great. So radiant."

But when she arrives around 8, Hillary looks unradiant. Exhausted would be a better description. "Won't Back Down" comes on the loudspeaker, but Tom Petty's next lyric, "There ain't no easy way out," seems most apt. Clinton has already ditched the Zimbabwe line, which was pounced upon by pundits like Andrew Sullivan while she motored here from Sunrise.

So Clinton tries another tack: "We cannot have a nominee who only represents 48 out of 50 states," she says, adding that after her victory in the previous day's Kentucky primary, "more people have voted for me than have voted for my opponent."

Problem is, her vote calculation depends upon counting not only the Florida and Michigan primaries but on dismissing votes from caucus states that went for Obama.

Some 18 hours later, the black messiah arrives at the B'Nai Torah Congregation on SW 18th Street in Boca Raton. Yarmulkes punctuate the rows of silver and blue heads like so many black and tan ellipses. From the podium, Obama looks out upon a sea of aging, heavily perfumed flesh, Hawaiian print shirts, and pastel pantsuits. It's a far cry from the hipster scene he's encountered elsewhere, but the road to the White House runs through Florida Jewry.

"If you got one of these emails that says I'm a Muslim... not true," he says. "I have never been a Muslim."

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