The greater Tampa–St. Petersburg area is a weird neck of the woods, a place where porn empires, strip clubs, regional banking, drug money, upscale resorts, seedy beach towns, Spanish-moss-adorned oak trees and wispy sea oats all struggle for footing in an ever-shifting landscape of development and erosion. Decaying old money and jittery Nuevo Riche arrivistes rub up against each other in a culture clash obvious to anyone who’s strayed off I-275, which divides the hood of south-side St. Pete from upscale Tierra Verde. Everyone seems to have made uncomfortable agreements with themselves in this comfortable climate. And everyone seems to smoke menthols.
Then there’s the rain. Over the course of a week, I experience downpours we’d call biblical in Los Angeles. Here, they’re just evening thunderstorms. These storms mix with the salty sea breezes, making you feel as though you’re visiting a spa. It’s kind of delicious. I’m starting to like it here.
Do Joe Biden and Sarah Palin feel the same way about Tampa–St. Pete? Probably not, but their campaigns know that every election season, this is a battleground metropolis in a critical battleground state. Which is why both vice-presidential candidates turn up in the same week here in early October.
Palin storms through first. She makes a Monday-morning appearance at Coachman Park in Clearwater, and unleashes her third day of casting aspersions upon Barack Obama’s character, using his loose association with Weather Underground co-founder (and Chicago’s 1997 Citizen of the Year) Bill Ayersas evidence that he’s been “palling around with terrorists.” Palin’s dark insinuations punctuate the McCain campaign’s local-TV ad blitz that asks, “Who is Barack Obama?”
After the rally, not far away at a Dunkin’ Donuts (coffee-wise, it may be the best you’re going to get in these parts), Sandi Whitely and Sharon Dorsey are hard to miss in hot-pink and green “Palin Power” T-shirts, featuring the feminine symbol extending out of the O. Blonde and on the far side of middle age, they both look like former high school cheerleaders who might have married the quarterback.
I get my coffee and a pumpkin muffin, a delicious mix of sugar and carbs that more than makes up for the just-OK caffeine, and sit down at the table next to the ladies. “I like your T-shirts,” I tell them. Whitely says that a Christian group called Wake Up America was selling the shirts outside the rally. Both women have buttons with head shots of John McCain and Sarah Palin superimposed on an image of LadyLiberty pinned to their shirts, and they bask in a Palin-powered afterglow.
“With Sarah, the excitement she brings gives me hope,” says Dorsey, a sturdy-looking woman with stern eyes and short, no-nonsense hair. One could as easily picture her behind the wheel of a combine harvester as a minivan.
“She’s going to be a big part of this party,” adds Whitely, who is a little more girlish and comes off a bit like Dorsey’s eager little sister.
Both Whitely and Dorsey are classic snowbirds, refugees from the harsher climes of Illinois farm country. They came here separately in the late ’80s and now live near St. Pete Beach. Dorsey met Whitely’s husband first when he moved into the same condo complex. She says her first thought was, Who’s this handsome farmer? This is going to be OK. Then came Whitely.
“We’ve been best friends ever since,” laughs Dorsey.
“I was a Hillary person,” Dorsey confides.
“We both were,” Whitely says.
“This is the first time I’ll vote Republican,” says Dorsey, who is a registered independent.
Whitely, too, says she’s independent, but more often than not votes Democrat.
“I loved Bill Clinton,” she says. “I didn’t care about all his women. That was on [Hillary] to take care of.”
“I loved Bill Clinton, too,” Dorsey adds.
But for some reason, they can’t get with Obama.
“He has too many bad friends,” says Whitely. “Anyone can have some bad friends, but he has a whole list.”
Privately, I wonder if Whitely has heard about Palin’s ties to a militant Alaskan separatist group, a little closer than Obama’s ties to Ayers, seeing how it was actually her husband’s fetish. Or that Palin’s church has warned that Alaska must be ready for the coming End Days, when refugees will be streaming over the border seeking sanctuary during the apocalypse (which, thanks to nearly 30 years of Reaganomics, feels as if it may in fact be upon us; even as we speak, the stock market plunges another 800 points).
But these gals have stars in their eyes, and it would be wrong to dismiss them as dumb or deluded. They have second residences, good incomes and successful children. They’ve made what they want out of their lives.
“Do you think Palin is ready to be president?” I ask.