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South Florida maintenance man becomes Barack Obama impersonator

He exits the Starbucks at Federal Highway and Broward Boulevard on a warm Wednesday afternoon. Traffic slows, and drivers stretch their necks to get a better view. A woman in a red Toyota Camry slams on her brakes and rolls down her window. "Oh my God! Is that — " she squints and cocks her head. He gives her a gentle, confident wave.

Table after table of outdoor diners on Las Olas stop their conversations midsentence and look up as he passes. Some stare, forks still held to their lips, as if his mere presence has paused them. Whispers float out from behind menus.

At the Cheesecake Factory, employees push aside his Secret Service detail and follow him around in a buzzing crowd as he shakes hands with hostesses and astonished kitchen workers. A waitress cries out, "Aw, girl! I just touched Barack Obama!"

Fifteen minutes later, he's walking down Andrews Avenue. Passersby beep their car horns. Construction workers crammed into a passing truck gaze at the candidate as he crosses an intersection, their mouths open in stunned silence. He points at buildings he passes, nodding to members of his entourage.

When he enters the public library, a small crowd gathers in the lobby. Two women pushing strollers halt in their tracks when they see him. One mother reaches into the stroller and lifts out her toddler daughter. The candidate leans over and kisses the little girl on the forehead. Both women reach for their camera phones. "This is history, baby," the mother says to the confused toddler.

As Obama poses for photos, he purposely turns so that only his right side faces the lens. On the left, a slight but noticeable scar, long and thin, runs from his hairline to his temple next to his eye. Perhaps this is an imperfection a makeup artist usually conceals.

But doesn't the senator have a mole near his left nostril? And on this day, Obama's famous grin seems to gleam a bit less brightly than usual.

Still, it's his figure that's unmistakable — tall, lean, and straight-backed. Then there's the face — high forehead, jutting chin, prominent, low-sloping eyebrows. And those big ears. The image has inundated TV this election season.

Men call to him by name from across the room. A security guard performs an exaggerated double take. He replies with a thumbs-up, a wave, and a smile. A woman with gray hair and glasses cautiously approaches the candidate and extends her shaking hand. In a timid voice, she says, "Are you really him?"

He leans in toward her and in a deep, deliberate voice utters, "What do you think?"

Something sounds a bit off in his voice. Unfazed, the woman hands her camera phone to a friend and goes in for a bear hug. She thanks him, and he says, "You're welcome." And there it is again. Unmistakably, this Barack Obama has a Spanish accent.

Indeed, Gerardo Puisseaux was born in Cuba, with forebears of Haitian descent. He greets a visitor warmly in the reception area at the Hialeah studios of Spanish-language TV channel América TeVe. He's between takes of a sketch show, so he's in costume: a dark suit and a big mole plastered next to his left nostril. Sure, there are a few imperfections: the scar on the forehead, the smile, and a gold watch that dangles tackily from his right wrist. But these details do little to diminish that first impression: He doesn't just look like him. They just about share the same damned face.

Puisseaux says that when he's playing his doppelgänger, he thinks like Obama. Indeed, today there is something of a politician to his gait and mannerisms.

He's as casually intimate as a candidate on the campaign trail, prone to grab a knee, elbow, or shoulder warmly as he speaks. And he makes eye contact so intensely that you might suspect he's trying to gauge your soul or calculate your mortgage. Of course, these traits of intimacy were hallmarks of Latin-American culture before they were American political techniques.

Damian Romay, an executive producer at América TeVe, says Puisseaux has only one major difference from Obama: "I think he's missing some teeth, so he tries to not smile. He's angry Obama."

Puisseaux sidles through a sleekly designed lunchroom. Resting around him are stars with plucked eyebrows and concrete hairdos, drinking midafternoon coladas. A few greet Puisseaux politely, referring to him only as "Obama."

With men, he is decorous, constantly offering a cigarette or to fetch a coffee. With women, he's a harmless Lothario, full of winks, grins, and thumbs-up symbols. In the space of ten minutes, he declares that three actresses and a cafeteria worker are each "the most beautiful woman in América TeVe."

He eventually reports to his workplace, which today is a small set where actors have gathered around a boardroom table. A track running down the center guides a digital camera. The sketch being filmed is an example of the bizarre slapstick that characterizes Spanish-language comedy: It's a spoof of Donald Trump's The Apprentice. The millionaire is played by a dwarf who's wearing a giant orange wig, and he has decided to choose the next president based on audience vote. Among the actors at the table, a light-skinned man with hair sprayed white is stuffing his cheeks with cotton balls to achieve the John McCain look.

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Gus Garcia-Roberts
Michael J. Mooney

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