Palin's Florida mission: Keep the base enthusiastic, engaged

Gov. Sarah Palin's itinerary in Florida, where she went on the offensive over Barack Obama's ties to Vietnam-era radical William Ayers, suggests her mission was to drive the Republican faithful to the polls, rather than to win new converts to the McCain/Palin ticket.

Three of her four public appearances Monday and Tuesday were in Republican strongholds in southwest and northern Florida — Estero on Monday, and Pensacola and Jacksonville on Tuesday.

In between her public appearances, Palin was slated to attend private fundraisers in Naples, Boca Raton and Jacksonville expected to raise as much as $3 million.

Palin's visit to the Republican faithful came as new surveys suggest that Obama is opening a lead over McCain in the state, which McCain must win if he is to have any hopes of gathering enough electoral votes to win the presidency.

A Fox News/Rasmussen poll released Monday showed Obama leading McCain 52 to 45 percent in Florida. Last week, the same survey found a tied race, while McCain was leading by 5 percentage points the week before.

Last week, five polls showed Obama ahead by three to eight points in Florida, while two other surveys showed the race tied in the state.

Palin showed she can generate a crowd among the faithful. An appearance that was originally scheduled for Fort Myers was moved to a nearby minor-league hockey arena in Estero to accommodate the demand for tickets.

At the hockey arena, Palin portrayed Obama as a left-wing zealot with ties to a violent Vietnam War protester.

"'Wait a minute. He didn't know that he had launched his political career in the living room of a domestic terrorist?"' Palin asked the amped-up crowd of 8,000. "`This is about the truthfulness and judgment needed in our next president."'

Obama's camp said she was exaggerating his relationship with Ayers and hit back with a Web video tying McCain to Charles Keating, the banker at the center of the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s.

Palin also argued that McCain would set the economy straight, while Obama would raise taxes, and she accused Obama of trying to cut off funding to the troops in Iraq and demeaning the military mission in Afghanistan, charges that are echoed in a new McCain ad airing on national cable.

''It sure would be nice if just once [Obama] said he wants America to win,'' Palin said.

Palin was introduced by Gov. Charlie Crist, who was joined on stage by his fiancee, Carole Rome, and U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez.

Keeping the faithful enthusiastic and ready to go to the polls could be crucial to McCain's Florida hopes.

Obama's campaign has registered more than 170,000 voters in Florida in recent months, a critical edge if the new voters turn out on Nov. 4. Leading up to Monday, the registration deadline for the election, the Obama campaign swamped the state with celebrities in a voting push that culminated with free concerts Sunday and Monday by hip-hop superstar Jay-Z in Miami.

Next up: Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden, who will campaign Wednesday in Tampa and Fort Myers.

''McCain's challenge right now is to make up the ground that Obama has built up,'' said Miami lobbyist Al Cardenas, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. "If he can move the needed two or three points over the next couple weeks, which are crucial, it will come down to a battle over turnout."

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