In Florida, a slow start for Trump operation

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Posted: Jul 15, 2016 4:19 PM
In Florida, a slow start for Trump operation

SARASOTA, Fla. (AP) — Festooned with Donald Trump's name and his "Make America Great Again" motto, the awnings at the three-story commercial property advertise a famous tenant.

It's vintage style for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee: a top-floor campaign office suite in an upscale shopping district, across the street from an automobile showroom of Bentleys and Aston Martins. But there's a catch.

"Our office is TEMPORARILY CLOSED to the public, while our office works to prep for the National Convention in Cleveland," reads a notice posted around the lobby. A call to the posted phone number gets an automated message: "Memory is full." This is Trump's Florida headquarters.

Just three months before the earliest voting begins in this state that awards 29 electoral votes — more than 10 percent of the 270 necessary to claim the White House — it appears Trump's Florida campaign is not running on all cylinders.

In nearby Tampa in contrast, the Florida headquarters for Hillary Clinton buzzes with several dozen 20-somethings — paid campaign employees — manning phones and laptops, surrounded by maps and white boards covered in notes, names and numbers. Soon the Clinton team will move into a bigger space with room for volunteers, too.

"We're running the race of our lives," said Simone Ward, Clinton's state director, whose staff includes veterans of the primary season, previous presidential campaigns and the Obama White House.

Certainly, disparate office scenes in July do not predict a November result in a state that is a perennial battleground. President Barack Obama won here by fewer than 75,000 votes out of more than 8.4 million in 2012. Overall, out of 41 million total presidential ballots here since 1992, fewer than 131,000 separate the combined totals of the Democratic and Republican nominees.

Yet more than a few Republicans wonder whether Trump will put up an effective campaign in the state.

Orange County Republican Chairman Lew Oliver, whose county includes Orlando, says he's not "alarmed or terrified" about Trump's prospects. "But I am concerned."

Trump trounced his Republican rivals the March 15 primary, delivering the final blow to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's already flagging White House bid. Republicans praise Karen Giorno, Trump's lead Florida aide, for her work on the primary campaign and describe her as a skilled operator with all the right instincts and connections. She did not respond to requests for comment about his Florida operation.

"He has a message of security — economic security and keeping your family safe," said Deborah Tamargo, who leads the Republican Party in Hillsborough County, a key swing county that is home to Tampa. "That's an appeal for every community."

Florida pollster Fernand Amandi argued such optimism isn't justified yet. All of Trump's national shortfalls are on display here: Polls suggest he is failing to rebuild even Mitt Romney's losing 2012 coalition as he lags badly among white women, and his struggle among nonwhites is acute in a state that is less white than the nation overall.

Amandi said Trump's rhetoric on immigration hurts him specifically among Cuban-Americans, typically a GOP-friendly group. "The Cuban electorate is not immune to the Trump backlash," he said.

Trump gave a nod to that reality recently, scheduling a speech in Miami and planning a private session with Cuban-American leaders. He canceled both after the sniper attack that killed five Dallas police officers.

Florida airwaves, meanwhile, tilt heavily to Clinton, with her campaign and Democratic allies already sinking more money into Florida ads than anywhere else.

Priorities USA, a super political action committee dedicated to electing Clinton, plans to spend at least $30 million in Florida by Election Day, Kantar Media's campaign advertising tracker shows.

Also at issue for Trump is the GOP field operation — the "ground game" that uses data, employees and volunteers to identify supporters and get them to vote. The state Republican Party has about 75 paid field workers around the state, paid for mostly by the national party.

Florida GOP spokesman Wadi Gaitan said "there's no county in the state" that's not the responsibility of a paid field director, with many of them still training volunteers for fall campaign work. Gaitan also notes gains in GOP voter registration.

Trump has said he will lean on this operation, but the national party and the Trump campaign have yet to work out operating details.

"I'd like there to be some concrete, established offices," said Michael Barnett, GOP chairman in Palm Beach County, a trove of Republican donors and voters. "We usually see that no later than July, and we're in July."

Barnett said he hopes movement will follow the convention, which ends Thursday. "I'm not nervous," he said. "Not yet."

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Associated Press writer Julie Bykowicz contributed from Washington.

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Follow Barrow on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP.