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Politics

After Seminole rally, Obama visits West Tampa eatery

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 12:00 PM
SEMINOLE -

Repeating many of the themes and best lines from his convention speech last week, President Barack Obama told a crowd of 11,000 people Saturday that the election is "a choice between two fundamentally different paths for America, two fundamentally different visions for our future."

He said his opponent, Republican nominee Mitt Romney, offers "the same prescriptions they've had for 30 years. Tax cuts, tax cuts, gut a few regulations, some tax cuts. … Tax cuts to help you lose a few extra pounds. Tax cuts to help your love life."

"We've tried what they're peddling; it didn't work," he said. "We're not going back. We're going forward."

Obama later made a surprise stop at the West Tampa Sandwich Shop, a small but iconic Cuban eatery known for the political talk among its mostly Hispanic clientele and as a tour stop for politicians.

He walked in to cheers from the late lunch crowd and ordered Cuban sandwiches for his entourage, then went from table to table for about 45 minutes, getting varied and sometimes blunt responses from patrons.

"I'm with you 100 percent," said the mother of one boy whose Mohawk haircut Obama admired.

But Dan Gemmell, 63, a Democrat and a retired Army major, told Obama he is undecided, even though he voted for Obama in 2008. His reason: "I'm a Roman Catholic."

Obama has tangled with some Catholic leaders about the Affordable Care Act requirement that employer-provided health insurance cover birth control.

Earlier Saturday, speaking at St. Petersburg College's Seminole campus, Obama was accompanied by Florida Sen. Bill Nelson and Tampa Rep. Kathy Castor, and introduced by former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who created a national political story by endorsing Obama at the convention.

Citing Obama's 2009 economic stimulus plan and response to the BP oil spill, Crist told the crowd, "Even though I was still a Republican, we had an oil spill, we needed help for our teachers, our police, our firefighters, President Obama was there for us – and now it's time for us to be there for him."

He and Crist then repeated their famous hug from a 2009 Fort Myers appearance by Obama promoting the stimulus, the event that more than any other alienated Crist from fellow Republicans.

Nelson said he will introduce legislation backed by Obama on Tuesday to create a "Veterans Job Corps" to provide employment for returning veterans who can't find work, "in parks or conservations lands or with first responders."

He said of the campaign: "I've never seen it as ugly and nasty as it is out there."

Repeating a common political analysis, he said Florida will be decisive.

"You're in the state that is ground zero, and in the location that is ground zero," he said. "If President Obama carries Florida with 29 electoral votes, that is the election – and where is the swing part of Florida? It's right here," he said.

That clearly was the reason for Obama's visit. Saturday's appearances began a two-day Florida tour, the president's first stops in the 60-day convention-to-election day sprint, following a quick trip to Iowa and New Hampshire.

Later Saturday, Obama appeared before a racially mixed crowd stirred up with rock music and packed into the Kissimmee Civic Center in the heart of Central Florida's burgeoning and Democratic-leaning Puerto Rican community.

He is expected to finish today with speeches in Melbourne and West Palm Beach.

Asked aboard Obama's bus what the president will talk about in Melbourne, spokesman Jay Carney responded that Obama – unlike Romney -- has a plan for the space program.

He said Obama chose a bus tour to spend time in the state and hit small towns not easily accessible via Air Force One, and that the tour will include stops along the Interstate 4 corridor where the Puerto Rican population has grown.

Later, spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in an email the campaign has done bilingual phone banks and "extensive outreach" to Puerto Ricans. Advocates of statehood and supporters of commonwealth status "have decided to put aside their differences and come campaign" for Obama, she said.

She said he was the first presidential candidate since JFK to visit the island."

The campaign confirmed that former President Bill Clinton will campaign for Obama in Miami on Tuesday and Orlando on Wednesday.

Overcast skies and a threat of rain preceded Obama's arrival for the outdoor event in Seminole. But even so, the massive crowd, which began gathering before 8 a.m. for Obama's 11:15 a.m. speech, felt the heat.

In a result typical for Florida presidential campaign events, with big crowds assembled in advance, more than 100 people received first aid for heat problems, said Seminole Fire Department EMS Chief Terry Tokarz.

Most were given water and taken inside air-conditioned campus buildings, but more than 10 were taken to hospitals, he said.

A key question about Obama's re-election effort is whether the enthusiastic young and minority vote that sparked his 2008 victory will be repeated, with the economy still suffering and without the incentive of electing the nation's first black president.

The Saturday crowd size suggests Obama still has plenty of fans in Pinellas County, which he won in 2008 along with Hillsborough.

A University of South Florida St. Petersburg graduate and two students in the crowd said they and their friends are still enthusiastic, but could not forecast whether the turnout will happen again.

"My age cohorts are still as committed, but not the newer ones," said Bobby Mermer of New Port Richey, who recently graduated after studying economics and political science.

Sean Ericson, a senior psychology and marketing major, said the interest remains, "because young people are feeling the pinch. When we apply for a job, we know politics matters."

Women's rights issues motivated social work major Ashley Flemming of Inverness: "Equal pay, birth control, college aid, girl power – it's my uterus, dammit."

Obama concentrated his 30-minute speech on the economy and economic fairness.

He bashed Romney's proposal for another round of tax cuts likely to benefit upper-income people, and balancing the budget by eliminating unspecified tax loopholes, which some analysts say would mean popular deductions including mortgage interest.

He said he wouldn't ask middle class families to give up home ownership or child rearing deductions, or students to pay more for college, or "kick children out of Head Start programs, or eliminate health insurance for millions of Americans who are poor or elderly or disabled, all so those with the most can pay less."

He gave comparatively scant attention to women's rights issues and criticism of the Republican plans on Medicare, which were prominent at last week's Democratic National Convention.

"By the way, Florida, you should know, I will never turn Medicare into a voucher system," he said. "No American should ever have to spend their golden years at the mercy of an insurance company."


wmarch@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7761

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