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.
“Oh, yes. She has more experience than Barack does,” Dorsey says.
I ask what they would have done had Obama picked Hillary Clinton as his running mate.
“I would have voted for him, probably,” admits Whitely, almost conspiratorially.
But now, says Dorsey, “When Hillary sends out those e-mail messages asking us to support Obama — because we still get them — we tell her, ‘We love you, but we can’t vote for you.’”
I ask them if they think Republicans are playing them for a kind of cheap gender allegiance. As soon as the question is out, a couple of construction workers, one black and the other Latino, sitting a few tables away, nod as if they’ve been thinking the same thing.
“0h, no,” says Whitely. “I had a psychic tell me I have a lot of psychic abilities, and I am not being played. I know that. I have seen things.”
“Palin is not a ploy,” insists Dorsey, with the assurance of one who has just sized up someone in person and come away convinced. She hesitates for a moment.
“When Hillary lost … I was really upset,” she confesses.
I can tell she means it. It’s like she lost a friend.
“We are so ready for a change in the gender of who’s running things,” Whitely says.
“Hillary took it to that glass ceiling, and I think that Sarah is going to break it,” adds Dorsey.
The Palin Power ladies take their leave and wish me well. In the parking lot, as I scarf down the last of my pumpkin muffin, a little old lady — and I mean that to the full extent of the cliché — done up in country-club plaids, lipstick and white gloves (earlier, in the shop, she’d kept one white glove on her left hand while she handled her donut and coffee with the other) calls to me as she gets into her car.
“I think it’s about time a woman ran the country!”
Which makes me wonder, when it comes to McCain-Palin, who’s on top?
A couple days later, Joe Biden appears at Tampa’s University of Southern Florida. When I ask the security guard stationed in the upper reaches of the Sun Dome (home of the Bulls) how many people are on hand, he smiles and says, “I don’t know, but a lot more than they expected. That’s why this section is open.”
From where I stand in the nosebleeds, Biden doesn’t look like much more than a crisp, dark suit with a silver topping. But as he bounds up to the podium, more athletically than he has a right to do, the crowd of students and interested citizens greet Biden like a rock star. It’s the morning after Barack Obama and John McCain had their second debate.
Biden seems energized by the setting and the timing of the whistle stop. Regarding last night’s debate, he says, “I think people are looking for a steady hand, leadership and optimism, not an angry man lurching from one position to another.”
Then he mentions Palin’s attempts to tag Obama as some kind of terrorist sympathizer.
“This is beyond disappointing, this is wrong,” Biden says. “But Obama knows this election isn’t about him — it’s about you.” That one still gets butts out of their seats.
On this Wednesday inside the Sun Dome, the fear that the McCain campaign is pushing feels like a played-out trick. It’s the economy that is on people’s minds. And Biden, who is able to infuse his speeches with equal parts policy and passion, connects the current, potentially catastrophic economic problems to a larger, ethical and moral issue.
“This is about dignity, respect and fairness,” Biden says. “This is about whether you can look your kids in the eyes and say, ‘Everything’s going to be OK.’”
Judging by the thunderous applause, this sentiment resonates at the most basic level with the folks in attendance — many of whom appear to be those mythical white working-class males — addressing their real fears instead of the phony ones levied by the McCain-Palin campaign.
Listening to Biden, I realize there’s a subtext to this election that he seems the most ready to embrace. He skirts its edges during his speech at USF, doesn’t quite give it a name, doesn’t quite step up and say, “I’m proud to be a liberal.” But it’s there between the lines and is reflected in the visceral reflexes of the marginalized working-class men and women in this audience who jump out of their seats when he hits upon the idea that government can work on behalf of everyday folks rather than just for the powerful, and that we can have a more just and equitable society than the one we’ve had for a long time now. And it’s there in faces of the students who light up at the idea of change — not just from the past eight years, but from the culture of fear and division propagated for so long now.
When Biden tells this battleground-state audience of 5,000 or so that it is still possible to determine a safe and hopeful future for Americans, to recapture the country’s greatness after the travesties of the past eight years, the crowd erupts into chants of, “Yes, we can! Yes, we can!”
Outside the Sun Dome after the speech, a handful of McCain supporters hold up signs proclaiming their allegiance. Nobody pays them any mind.