With Obama ahead in must-win Florida, GOP casts blame

For the first time in more than a decade, Florida Republicans are considering the almost unthinkable: Their presidential nominee could lose the state.

The economy, an unpopular president, a strong opponent, and the inability of John McCain to reverse poll numbers despite repeatedly revising his strategy has top state Republicans looking for someone to blame.

''There are a lot of folks who have never been in a foxhole before and are clearly nervous,'' said Brian Ballard, a major McCain fundraiser. "There is some finger-pointing going on a little bit too soon.''

Even Gov. Charlie Crist, who helped deliver Florida for McCain during the primary, said he will spend the final weeks before Election Day minding the state's weak economy rather than campaigning for the Arizona senator.

''When I have time to help, I'll try to do that,'' Crist said last week, after he flew around the state with McCain running mate Sarah Palin. Saturday, he skipped a McCain football rally and instead went to Disney World.

Once considered a potential running mate, Crist had pledged to do all he could for McCain and spent several days this summer campaigning for the Republican nominee in and outside Florida. He faults the tough economic times for McCain's difficult time in Florida, where he trails rival Barack Obama by about 5 percentage points in the polls.

No Republican has won the White House in modern times without carrying Florida. The last to lose the state was McCain's former colleague, Sen. Bob Dole, in 1996. Some Republicans say the state party hasn't done enough, while others blame McCain's national campaign.

Roger Stone, a longtime McCain supporter, said the state party and the national campaign bear almost equal blame.

''This effort lacks coordination and a cooperative spirit and it's showing,'' Stone said. "But it's more than mechanics. The campaign has no consistent message.''

Over the summer, the Obama camp spent at least $10 million on Florida television ads — 4,000 of the spots attacking McCain — while McCain spent nothing.

The failure by the party and McCain's campaign to respond to an Obama radio ad in Florida that bashed McCain over embryonic stem-cell research was ''a perfect example of them not being on the ball in Florida,'' Stone said, echoing numerous Florida Republicans.

But national campaign officials said McCain is within striking distance of Obama in the polls, has ample time to turn things around, and had a winning strategy until Wall Street's crash.

''It's a little early for Monday-morning quarterbacking.'' said McCain's southeast regional director, Buzz Jacobs.

Asked about Republican complaints that the campaign doesn't even have enough T-shirts or bumper stickers for supporters, Jacobs had another interpretation: ``It's a sign of a healthy campaign whenever the demand is greater than the supply.''

A bright spot for McCain is that 200,000 more Republicans have requested absentee ballots than Democrats in Florida. But Democrats now outnumber Republicans by 500,000 statewide, thanks to huge new voter-registration drives by Obama's campaign and liberal activist groups like ACORN.

McCain's national political director, Mike DuHaime, dismissed the second-guessing as a typical campaign hazard. Ballard, the Florida fundraiser, said this is all a function of the fact that it's a tough year for Republicans and that McCain has agreed to campaign spending limits and federal matching funds while Obama has not.

''We're going to be outspent. It's a fact of life,'' he said.

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