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By Jill Stewart
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Last time I was in Florida for an election was four years ago. I covered the entire presidential campaign, starting with Dean’s scream in the snows of Iowa to the final stretch in the biggest swing state. Author Steve Elliott and I stayed at the house of Larry Davis, a well-known Democratic attorney in Florida’s Broward County. In 2000, Davis had seen things up close, when he worked with Al Gore’s legal team. But it was Ohio not Florida that sunk John Kerry in 2004. Kerry conceded at 3 a.m. When we woke up Wednesday, we didn’t bother to watch his speech. We drove to the beach and slipped into the water.
Floating beneath an azure sky, we could feel the specter of a second Bush term lurking behind the swaying palms. “It just doesn’t seem real,” Elliott said. Kerry had been down in the polls but gaining, and everyone thought he could scratch out a last-minute squeaker. The warm waves felt like a ritual bath but not enough to wash away the impurities of the entire nation. “I don’t know if I have the strength to get back to shore.”
The next four years were everything we feared.
Then came the fight for post-Bush America, launching the most intense political drama of our time. We all know what happened: John McCain, left for dead, survived his primary and then waited for the Democratic dust to settle, from which emerged a 44-year-old half-black man named Barack Hussein Obama. From the start, incredibly, Obama was winning. Let’s be clear as to why: Obama had better ideas, inspired millions of people and ran a better campaign. In response, McCain jettisoned his independent pedigree to run a cynical campaign, best embodied by his vice presidential pick, Sarah Palin. When the economy soured, Obama opened a big lead. The Republicans panicked. They uncorked their foulest potions. Fear spread among Democrats that the Republicans would destroy a chance for the country to redeem itself. By now, everyone was consuming news in multiple formats for six hours daily. It felt like you could stop someone on the street and ask, “What’s the latest on that Quinnipiac poll out of Ohio?” And they’d respond, “Well, it’s tighter, but the likely voter model is screwy, and there’s some really good news in the cross tabs.” In the back of everyone’s minds lurked the question: Can they win again? “It feels like the Apocalypse,” my friend Starlee said watching the spin room after one of the debates. “Gog and Magog are lining up on the battlefield.”
This is what brought me back to Florida, a week before the election. I’m with Steve Elliott again, along with several friends who were here last time. We’re back at Larry Davis’ house. Everything’s the same, except different. History repeats itself, Hegel observed, to which Karl Marx, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, famously added “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” It’s fitting that the renewed Republican bugaboo should offer the most succinct possible précis of Bush’s eight years. But that farce is almost done. And history will not be repeated. Elliott and I had been surprised by Obama’s electrifying speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, and thought: If only that guy were running. Here we are.
“It’s like a do-over,” Elliott says. “You know that date with your high school crush, the one that went awry, and you always wished you could go back, say the right things, and live the life together that fate always intended? This is going to be like that. But better.”
Insane in the McCain
Broward County, which includes Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale, is Florida’s largest concentration of Democratic voters. It’s the state’s blue firewall. “We can make up for half the other counties combined,” Davis says. We happen to arrive in Florida the same day as Obama’s first big Broward event, the aptly titled Sunrise Rally. Tonight is Obama’s vaunted informercial, during which the cameras will switch live to the 20,000 supporters currently streaming into the BankAtlantic Center. People had been lining up since 6 a.m. As the cars roll past, a small but valiant detachment of McCain volunteers perches itself on the median, hoping to stem the tide.
“Do you see our plane?” the head volunteer asks, pointing.
Above, an orange open-cockpit stunt plane circles with a banner: DON’T SPREAD MY WEALTH VOTE McCAIN!
“No communism!” they yell at passersby.
It’s my first glimpse of real, live McCainiacs. They are all nice to me but vehement in their utter loathing of the press and anyone dumb enough not to realize that Obama represents some kind of creeping putsch. My notepad attracts a lot of attention, as everyone takes turns trying to convince me, a member of the liberal elite media, how deranged the liberal elite media are. “They have such a distorted view!” Then it’s on to a nuanced discussion of the issues, like: “MAN, I TELL YOU OBAMA IS SOCIALISM!”