BY DAVID LIGHTMAN
MCCLATCHY WASHINGTON BUREAU /TNS
CASSELBERRY – Donald Trump’s prospects in Florida may be starting to slip away.The key reason is Republicans themselves.
Interviews with more than 80 voters and party officials along the pivotal corridor across Central Florida from Orlando to Tampa since the final debate last week reveal a party torn over its own nominee, and candidates and activists increasingly working to turn out the vote for other Republican candidates rather than Trump, as early voting started Monday in many parts of the state.
Trump not mentioned
GOP officials barely mention Trump at their local rallies. The chairman of a key suburban county concedes many conservatives are having a tough time accepting the White House nominee. The local congressman, a Republican, avoids saying Trump’s name.
“I support the nominee. I’m focused on my own race,” said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., before a few hours of door-knocking Saturday in this Orlando suburb. As he walked around Jericho Drive in Casselberry, stopping at dozens of homes, he didn’t bring up Trump, not even once.
Go east or west across Central Florida and there’s an echo when Trump comes up. People are fed up with Washington and desperately want change, but Trump isn’t the answer.
And if Trump can’t win this state and its 29 electoral votes – more than 10 percent of the 270 needed to win – his chances are likely doomed.
Trump needs suburbs
To take the state, Republicans have to pile up votes in suburban areas such as Seminole County.
Trump needs about a 10 percent edge here, said Jeffrey Bauer, the county’s GOP chairman.
Republican nominee Mitt Romney won the county by 7 points four years ago and lost the state to President Barack Obama by 1.
Bauer’s not overly optimistic about Trump, and his focus is instead on electing local candidates.
“I want Trump to win,” Bauer said. “But if I had to choose between Trump winning and winning House and Senate seats, I’d pick the House and Senate.”
Local candidates agreed.
“I say I’m voting for Trump, and sometimes I have to add, ‘Don’t hurt me,’” said State Rep. Bob Cortes, a Republican who represents a suburban Orlando district. “I tell them you can vote your choice at the top of the ticket – but just vote for me.”
Republican voters have two chief complaints about Trump. One is style, and the other is whether he’s truly devoted to the conservative cause they’ve championed for so long.
Steve LaBadie, a Manatee Technical College cosmetology student from Bradenton, was a Trump supporter. Not anymore, not after the debates. “He doesn’t know how to keep his mouth shut,” LaBadie said.
Ditto Chris Chambers, a security administrator from Tampa. A Republican who voted for Romney four years ago, he said he’d “unfortunately” go with Clinton.
“I wish the Republican Party had a better candidate. He lacks diplomacy,” Chambers said.
Little conservative support
Trump’s also having problems mobilizing the conservative army that’s squarely behind Sen. Marco Rubio, who’s in a tight race for a second term.
“I don’t know where he stands on all the issues,” Bev Krier, a retiree from Longwood, said of Trump. She mentioned the Second Amendment and limited government, and wondered whether he’s strongly committed. “He says he is,” said Krier cautiously.
Bauer, the local chairman, found this sort of attitude typical. “It’s difficult to get them to come around,” he said of conservative activists who identified with the grass-roots tea party movement.
It all adds up to Clinton with “a pretty strong advantage,” said Frank Orlando, the director of the Saint Leo University Polling Institute in Saint Leo.
Clinton has an edge of about 4 percentage points over Trump in the realclearpolitics.com average of recent public polls. Before the debates started, he had a 1-point edge.
Florida’s a perennial battleground because it’s America in miniature.
The North Florida resembles the Deep South states it borders, and Trump has a comfortable poll lead in that region. South Florida and the Gulf Coast, with their urban areas and ethnic and racial diversity, may as well be a Northeastern state, and Clinton has a strong edge there. That makes Central Florida the decider.
One change from elections past: an influx of voters to Central Florida from Puerto Rico and Latin America.
Voters of Puerto Rican descent tend to vote heavily Democratic. And Hispanic voters who are undecided often are repulsed by Trump’s pledge to crack down on illegal immigration and his characterization of Mexicans. Trump reinforced their concerns at last week’s debate.
“He was talking about immigration. He had to say ‘hombres’?” asked an incredulous Ursula Recarte, a University of Central Florida student.
Clinton’s challenge is to make sure her constituencies turn out. She needs to mobilize African-Americans, Latinos and women, and she is bringing in big names with long-standing ties to those communities to campaign.