Finally... Florida

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

Not that there's anything wrong with being Muslim — just that Jewish culture has clashed with Islam these past few millennia.

As to his policy for dealing with Islamic extremists, "I will make sure Israel can protect itself from any attack, whether it comes from Gaza or as far away as Tehran." Soon, Obama is fielding questions. One silver-haired gentleman recounts a conversation he recently had with a fellow Jew who had reservations about supporting Obama. "He said if [the candidate's] name was Barry, he would vote for him." The man beams, then bows as a few tense chuckles bounce around the ballroom.

Here's a knuckleball. Obama seems unsure whether to treat this as a joke. Then he slams a triple. Pausing, he explains that his name was derived from the Hebrew word Baruch,' which means "blessed." The term, he continues, "should be pretty familiar to this group."

On Friday just before noon, advance people begin planning Baruch's appearance before the Cuban American National Foundation at the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Miami. Outside, two 20-something Cuban Americans are protesting in the parking lot. Wendy Padron will vote for Ralph Nader. "I vote for policies, not personalities," she insists.

And no candidate has less personality than Nader.

Her friend, Gabby Jimenez, a registered independent, is leaning toward McCain, based on his Cuba policy. "The Republicans are a lot more knowledgeable, and they figure out a way to work with us [Cubans] here without hurting us there," she says.

Inside the hotel, silver-suited Cuban men enjoy $12 cocktails in the anteroom before taking their thousand-dollar seats in the ballroom.

Clinton is far away now, in North Dakota, giving the now-infamous interview in which she casually mentions the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 as a reason for staying in the race.

Obama's living, breathing form materializes this time, however. He calls the Castro regime a "terrible, tragic status quo." His Cuba strategy "would be guided by one word: libertad." But Obama promises to demand freedom of speech, assembly, and religion on the island. But in a possible meeting with Raul Castro, Obama stops short of attaching conditions that Cuban Americans insist upon.

After Obama climbs down from the stage to meet and greet, Mary Ellen Tracy follows him, wearing a shoulder bag with Stephen Colbert's face on it and holding a flower pot with an orchid. As she draws close, she balances it above her head, so that within the tightly packed crowd, the two bulbs bounce like a couple of alien antennae.

Tracy's pupils are dilated — the mark of a brush with Obama. But she doesn't get close enough to have her copy of The Audacity of Hope signed. "He reminds me so much of John F. Kennedy," says Tracy, who saw that president give a speech in 1960, when she was 10 years old.

Outside, a Cuban woman named Florangel is hugging her signed book while next to her, an African-American woman steals glances at a palm she just pressed against Barack's. Florangel decided months ago to vote Obama, joining her kids but not her own parents. "I think he can get the Cuban votes from people 40 and under," she says, "but the Cubans over 50? Forget it."

Three hours later, in Sunrise, Obama plays the BankAtlantic Center. It's a free event, assuming one doesn't mind sharing space with surly kids while sweating like a junkie in a decathlon. Chants pass from line to line. "O-bam-UH! O-bam-UH!" goes the most popular one. "Tell yo' mama, vote Obama!" goes another.

The candidate greets the crowd with a cheery "Hello, Sunshine!" Nobody tells him he's actually in Sunrise, maybe because his greeting sounds a bit more romantic. Barack is dreamy. Just ask the young man sitting in the section over Obama's shoulder. After the senator makes a long list of the groups he would unite — "black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, young, old, gay, straight" — the man puts his hand over his heart and begins to cry.

"Hey, you gay?" asks a tall black man with a booming voice. "That's cool. We're all Americans," he says, then claps the young gay man on the back.

The glow from Obama's speech lasts only through the long walk to the car. When Obama Nation turns on its ignition, the buzz is gone. Drivers of merging cars become pariahs. Gridlock results. They have basked in Obama's "Sunshine" for a few hours, but now it's back to the real America.

With Brantley Hargrove, Michael Mooney, and Brandon K. Thorp

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