When union activist Fred Frost was helping to painstakingly count hanging and dimpled chads under the glare of TV cameras in Palm Beach and Broward counties during those tumultuous thirty-seven days in the fall of 2000, he remembers clearly muttering to himself at one point, “I don’t ever want to have to do this again in my life.”

He made a decision right there and then to do something about it. Already a political rep for a local baggage handlers union, he decided that Step One was to run for President of the Southern Florida AFL-CIO. Four years later, now 48 and having already achieved that first goal–twice, to be exact–he’s embarked on Step Two: to do everything in his power and that of his 150,000 members to defeat George W. Bush–and by a whole lot more than a contested 537 votes.

As staffers bustle around outside his office, rushing to get out the federation’s first round of targeted political mailers (six months earlier than usual), Frost brims with confidence. President Bush has had a pleasingly lousy month, battered in the polls by missing WMDs, missing National Guard records and missing jobs. “I’m more optimistic as each day goes by,” Frost says, slapping his desk. “I’ve never felt so much enthusiasm coming from the unions.” And not just from the unions. Liberal and progressive activists, civil rights groups and community organizers are eagerly girding for yet another Battle Royal in Florida this November. “This is going to be a fierce, fierce fight,” says former Democratic state chair Bob Poe, “just like it was in 2000.”

Florida remains, by all accounts, the most evenly divided state in a deeply polarized America. “Florida is 40/40–40 percent Democratic, 40 percent Republican, with that 20 percent swing vote in the middle, and most of that in the middle of the state just full of registered Independents and ticket-splitters,” says Congressman Alcee Hastings, who describes his home state as the New Peoria. “We now so closely mirror America that national marketers use our central corridor for consumer testing. In November it’s going to come down again to every single vote.”

With its trove of twenty-seven electoral votes (a full 10 percent of the total needed for the White House) and governed by the President’s brother, who passionately wants to deliver, yet the Southern state where Democrats have the best chance to win, Florida is regarded by partisans on both sides as likely once again to be the hardest-fought among the fifteen or so battleground or swing states. Here we go again.

Progressives and liberal Democrats are remarkably upbeat in predicting victory, despite having been trounced two years ago in Jeb Bush’s re-election campaign. The statewide March 9 primary, in fact, is passing with little notice, as most attention is riveted on November. “We have nothing to fear except our own failure to follow through on everything we say we are going to do,” says Mark Neimeiser, political director of AFSCME, the public employees union. “This ain’t no dress rehearsal.”

It’s not just bravado, wishful thinking and the lust to avenge Hurricane Chad that the Florida Democrats are counting on. There’s also demographics. Beyond the traditional massive and liberal seniors vote in the southern tier of the state and the fiercely loyal and active African-American vote, which has significantly grown as an overall portion of the state vote, Florida, in general, is rapidly becoming more urban and more ethnic, moderating its Southern traditions. Waves of transplants from liberal urban centers around America (settling mostly in the swing central portion of the state), and new migrations of non-Cuban Latinos (most notably Puerto Ricans who, as US citizens, can vote), all make Florida increasingly fertile territory for Democrats.

In the ill-starred 2000 election, for example, Orange County–home to Orlando’s theme parks and once the wellspring of Florida Republicanism–fell to the Democrats, nudged into the blue column by the budding Puerto Rican vote. “This trend is consistently in our direction, says Fort Lauderdale Congressman Peter Deutsch, one of the three leading Democrats seeking to replace retiring Senator Bob Graham. “We’ve won statewide three out of the four cycles,” says Deutsch. “We certainly should do it again.”

Formidable Republicans

Outside observers, however, counsel caution. “The Republican Party here is extremely disciplined and organized,” says Mark Silva, political editor of the Orlando Sentinel. “No one should underestimate the real organization that Jeb Bush commands.” Electoral math renders Florida a state the GOP can’t afford to lose. “Look at the three big states: California, Texas and Florida,” says Jim Krog, a former Democratic strategist who managed the two successful gubernatorial campaigns of the late Lawton Chiles. “Some Democrats think, wrongly, that they can win nationally and skip Florida, like Clinton did in ’92 when they didn’t put a dime in this state. But Republicans know they have to win two out of three of those states. Texas is one. California they can forget about. That leaves Florida as a must-win.”

Consequently, the Bush-Cheney campaign is tightly targeting Florida and vows to have 2,500 paid and volunteer organizers and canvassers soon working on the ground, and twenty times that number by Election Day. Mimicking Big Labor’s get-out-the-vote campaigns, the GOP aims to register tens of thousands of new Florida voters and is currently strip-mining the mailing lists of conservative interest groups, from the NRA to evangelical churches. And like the Democrats, the Republicans are already running six months ahead of the usual general election schedule. “The Republicans are just as serious in wanting to re-elect George W. Bush as those who oppose him are intent on getting rid of him,” says Sharon Lettman-Pacheco, state director of America Votes, an umbrella group for two dozen progressive organizations. “I know they are sleeping in shifts if they are sleeping at all. They want it all, and they want it by any means necessary.”

The state Republicans are also acutely aware of the shifts in Florida’s electorate. Yes, they are likely to campaign on hot-button cultural wedge issues from guns to gay marriage, but “they’re also going to try a run down the center,” says former education commissioner Betty Castor, another Democratic contender for the open US Senate seat. “Jeb Bush really wants to deliver this state for his brother, so they are going to be touting jobs, the environment and education, basically trying to steal our Democratic issues.” Nor should anyone overestimate the speed of shifting attitudes. Florida is the second-highest state in terms of National Guard members mobilized in Iraq. “Make no mistake. That still plays in the President’s favor,” says a Tallahassee political consultant.

Democratic activists say they expect little help in their efforts this year from the Florida Democratic establishment. The state party is disorganized and dispersed, often described by observers as rag-tag. “You can be sure the Democrats will be late, underfunded and lacking a strong center,” predicts Krog.

Party insiders disagree. They point to a rambunctious state party convention two months ago that drew a record 5,000 delegates and activists and tout the election of a new and energetic party chairman, Scott Maddox. “We’re angry and we are organized–better organized than ever before,” says Broward County party power broker Amadeo “Trinchi” Trinchitella. “This time the party is not going to take one vote for granted.”

Whatever the case, no one doubts that it’s the grassroots that will do the heavy lifting this year, just as it did in 2000, when it produced a stunning turnout for Al Gore. “No one thought we could win and no one wanted to help,” says Monica Russo, the fiery president of Florida Service Employees International Union Local 1199. “But what we pulled off, frankly, was incredible, almost a miracle.” Lettman-Pacheco, who helped lead the aggressive get-out-the-vote effort, says, “Outsiders don’t give enough credit to Florida for the 2000 turnout. The problem was the process, not the turnout. We, here, in fact, did everything extremely well.”

2000: Arrive With Five

The movement-style politics in 2000 was inadvertently unleashed by Governor Jeb Bush when, in late 1999, he issued an executive order dismantling affirmative action programs in state education. Reacting to this “One Florida” measure, then-state legislators Tony Hill and Kendrick Meek (whose mother, Carrie Meek, was the first black Florida congresswoman) staged an overnight sit-in at the governor’s Miami office. This dramatic move galvanized a bottom-up opposition movement that included Russo’s SEIU, other progressive unions, civil rights groups, and numerous other black politicians. In March 2000, tens of thousands of angry protesters marched on Tallahassee urging, “Remember in November!”

The new ground-level coalition then came up with a voter mobilization strategy dubbed Arrive With Five–a pledge not only to show up at the polls but also to bring a handful of other voters in tow. As Meek, Hill, Russo and others led this campaign doggedly across the state and into more than thirty counties, the national Democrats and the Gore campaign remained on the margin. “But our strategy worked,” says Russo. On the day after the November election the Miami Herald credited the Arrive With Five push with producing an “astounding” black voter turnout that included 88 percent of Miami Dade County’s registered African-American voters. Statewide black turnout hit 73 percent (compared with 70 percent overall). And the black vote–which was more than 90 percent Democratic–zoomed from 10 percent of total votes cast in 1996 to 16 percent. In the end, the GOP squeaked by thanks only to five votes from the Supreme Court.

Two years later, however, with voter anger over the butterfly ballots and the dimpled chads still fresh, the Democratic Party failed to capitalize on its own grassroots in the governor’s race. Eschewing the candidacy of former Attorney General Janet Reno–who enjoyed near superstar status among the Democrats’ liberal base–the party opted instead for a little-known newcomer, Bill McBride. The Democrats fueled his campaign with a $15 million jolt in the closing weeks (mostly from the national party), but later analyses suggested it had spent too much money on ineffective TV ads and not nearly enough on door-to-door contact with the voter base. Black turnout collapsed to a mere 43 percent, and Jeb Bush buried McBride in an embarrassing landslide. Yet in that very same election, highlighting the gulf between the party and its base, the same progressive coalition fashioned two years before sponsored and won a statewide ballot proposition that wrote classroom size reduction into the state Constitution–a measure bitterly fought by Jeb Bush.

2004: The Sanctified Seven

All of which brings us back to this coming November. On March 7, the same progressive coalition of unions, civil rights groups and black politicians–led again by Kendrick Meek–was to formally kick off the 2004 anti-Bush push, trying to reprise the march on Tallahassee. Meek is now a US Congressman and also serves as chief of John Kerry’s Florida campaign.

But the Democratic establishment still seems AWOL. “I haven’t heard anything yet from the Democratic Party,” says Bishop Victor Curry, pastor of the New Birth Baptist Church and former head of the Miami NAACP. One of the more outspoken leaders during the 2000 vote-count confrontation, Curry is already criss-crossing the state, meeting with scores of black clergy and enrolling them in the new voter mobilization program he calls the Sanctified Seven–a pledge to bring yourself and a half-dozen others out to vote. “I have heard from the unions, from the People for the American Way, from the NAACP and others,” says Bishop Curry. So regardless of what the Democratic Party does, he says, “we’re all gearing up to vote against Bush.”

That sort of energy and optimism is infectious. Canvassers are already walking precincts, phone banks are already buzzing. “This is really the first time there’s an early plan,” says Cynthia Hall, leader of the Florida state labor federation. “What usually happens in September or October is beginning to happen now. We’ve divided up the state into five zones and already have staff operating in each one.” Still, Florida is a “right to work” state, and with only about 7 percent of the work force members of unions (about half the national average), labor is relatively weak. “Labor can’t do jack shit on its own,” admits a prominent statewide union leader. “We need help. A lot of help.”

Some of the assistance might come from a passel of supposedly independent satellite fundraising and voter turnout groups busily moving into the state. Called 527s after the section of the IRS code that regulates them, these committees–mostly with Democratic ties–can raise unlimited amounts of money and then spend it on voter “education” and registration as long as they don’t endorse a specific candidate. Established to circumvent the soft-money restrictions of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, and having already received funding from labor, environmental and women’s groups (and a generous handout from billionaire George Soros), the 527 committees aim to be important–if unofficial–allies of the Democrats this year.

One of the more prominent 527s, America Coming Together, founded by former AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal, has already set up shop in Florida. Its rented storefront space in Orlando pulsated with activity as the first batch of canvassers pored over their “walking maps” downloaded onto Palm Pilots. “What works best is old-fashioned face-to-face contact,” says ACT’s Florida director Karin Johanson. “I know from my Washington experience just how far we have drifted from that principle. This is a return to our roots.”

Local activists are grateful for the 527 support, but some are also concerned about just how useful these outside groups will prove to be. “This is still the South, you know,” says a prominent Miami progressive activist, arguing that the November election will be a face-off between the economic populism of the Democrats and the cultural populism of the GOP [see “Among the NASCAR Dads,” page 18]. “What the Republican Party understands deeply and what the Democrats don’t quite get is that down here you have to touch people directly. Among us Southerners you can’t transfer relationships, you have to build them. The other side is really good at it. Much better than we are.”

O.B.T.: Overcome by Turnout?

What will happen in Florida in November depends not only on grassroots organizing but also on a couple of factors beyond the direct control of either state party organization. While post-2000 election and vote-counting reform has been extensive, it is nevertheless underfunded and incomplete. “The whole mess is still not fully resolved,” says Bradford Brown, president of the Miami/Dade NAACP.

Thousands of mostly black voters were improperly purged from the rolls before the 2000 vote when they were incorrectly identified as ex-felons, and while all those affected were to have been notified, notification has not been verified and re-registration has not been addressed. Concerns also still surround voting procedures. Many counties have switched to electronic voting machine systems, but the state government refuses to insist that a verifiable paper trail be required. “Jeb Bush is plain not interested in that idea,” says Brown. Recounts are rendered impossible without a paper back-up. And already in one recent by-election, conducted with electronic machines, almost 100 votes were unaccounted for. “I think monitors even from the Ashcroft Justice Department would be preferable to letting this whole thing be overseen by George Bush’s brother,” says Bishop Curry. “I’m not joking.”

The one worry no one seems to have about the Florida vote is turnout. If there’s any concern, it might be that there’s going to be so much going on in voters’ heads and on the state ballot that the voting will remain wildly volatile and unpredictable right up to the last minute. Apart from the presidential match, Floridians will also be choosing a new US senator in a race that’s already overheated within both parties. State ballot measures are likely to include legalized gambling, a minimum wage and two opposing legal reform propositions, among others–clashing initiatives from both the right and the left. Voters in populous and strategic Miami/Dade County are also likely to be deciding a mayoral run-off on the same day–possibly between two Democrats. Then there’s the added layer of lobbying and get-out-the-vote efforts that will come from interest groups and 527s. And now, maybe even Ralph Nader redux.

“Florida voters are going to be so inundated that they will need giant mailboxes and backup caller-ID machines on their phones,” laughs Krog, the former Democratic strategist and now a lobbyist. With voters confronted by so many mixed messages and tugged in so many contradictory directions, the tipping factor could be provided by the national presidential campaigns. Whichever of them is on a roll in the last few days might nudge Florida into either the red or blue column regardless of all the spadework of the previous months. “The military has this phrase: OBE–Overcome by Events,” says Krog, suggesting that a variation on that phrase might be in order. “That’s the safest prediction for Florida: OBT–Overcome by Turnout.”