Obama out to charm Florida and Clinton supporters

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Barack Obama on Friday will wrap up a three-day sweep in Florida, a crucial swing state in the US presidential contest, where he has sought to directly confront deep anxieties about his candidacy held by two major voting blocs in the state: Cuban-Americans and Jews.

By Edward Luce in Boca Raton, Florida

Mr Obama has used humour in his attempt to deflect some of these concerns, which range from his race to the enduring, but false, rumour that he is a Muslim. But it is unclear whether he has changed many minds.

“Let’s face it,” said Barack Obama, characterizing the doubts of swing voters on Thursday. “He is a black guy with a funny name and he’s young, too.”

By this stage of the campaign, Mr Obama might have hoped to have put some of the more outlandish internet rumours behind him. But according to a poll by Pew, one in 10 Americans still think Mr Obama is a Muslim and a far higher proportion, according to other polls, do not think of him as fully “American”.

Many such people probably will vote for John McCain in November. But a large number are also Democrats, some of whom Jewish, elderly and living in Florida. Others are of Cuban descent – traditionally a reliable Republican vote – and living in Florida.

And many have been receiving anonymous emails peddling false claims, including the contention that Mr Obama was sworn into the Senate in 2004 on the Koran rather than the Holy Bible.

“We are certainly aware of these rumours and the fact that in some respects they are getting worse,” says Jen Psaki, a spokesman for Mr Obama. “Always the best antidote to lies is the truth.”

In spite of the fact the nomination is not yet formally his and although Hillary Clinton is making ominous noises about taking her fight to the presidential convention in August, Mr Obama is already in general election mode. On Thursday he conducted his first formal “townhall” meeting at a synagogue – with the B’nai Torah congregation in Boca Raton.

On Friday he will address Miami’s traditionally Republican Cuban émigré community to celebrate Cuban independence day. And on Saturday he visits Puerto Rico, which holds the third from last nominating contest in ten days time and which Mrs Clinton is expected to sweep.

Mr Obama’s three weakest demographic groups are Hispanics, Jews and the blue collar whites. “At the end of every primary contest, the nominee emerges with highlighted weaknesses among certain groups,” said Simon Rosenberg, head of the New Democratic Network, a liberal think tank. “What is encouraging about Obama’s strategy is that he is addressing those weaknesses already. He is wasting no time getting into the general election swing.”

But Mr Obama, who is telling audiences that “the Republicans want to make this election about me, they want you to worry about me”, is fighting a two-front war. Next weekend, Mrs Clinton will make her claim to the Democratic National Committee that the delegates from Florida and Michigan – both states she won, although Mr Obama’s name was not on the ballot in Michigan and neither of them campaigned in Florida – should be reinstated.

With memories still fresh of Al Gore’s defeat to George W. Bush after the Supreme Court put a halt to vote recounts in Florida, Mrs Clinton has been depicting the DNC’s punitive action against the two states as a replay of the bitter 2000 contest. She has even compared her fight to reinstate those delegations with the battle to abolish slavery. And she claims that Mr Obama would lose Florida to Mr McCain in November.

“If Democrats send the message that we don’t fully value your votes, we know Sen. McCain and the Republicans will be more than happy to have them,” Mrs Clinton told an audience in Broward County, one of the infamous sites of “hanging chads” and “butterfly ballots” in 2000.

Few believe that Mrs Clinton will get her way at the May 31 DNC meeting, or that even if she did, it would make any difference to the final outcome. The Obama camp has said it would be happy to seat half the delegates from Michigan and Florida – a compromise the Republicans reached with the same states earlier this year.

But the continuing battle against Mrs Clinton is starting to worry some Democrats, who are impatient to begin the general election. “We have had a wonderful contest against a wonderful candidate,” Mr Obama said yesterday. “But it is going to be time for us very soon to start unifying this party because we cannot afford to be divided come November.”

The Financial Times

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