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."

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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