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Democrats at Disney Hope Their Dreams Can Come True

Some 3,000 Florida Democrats gathered Saturday for a state party conference at Disney World -- a place where the signs say `dreams come true.’

A decade after Florida’s last Democratic governor and even longer since the party held a majority in the state House, Senate or congressional delegation, it’s no surprise that the party has plenty to wish for in the pivotal election year ahead.

“Our goal here this weekend is simple: To start the process of taking back our state in 2010,” Democratic Chair Karen Thurman told the crowd.

Throughout the day, Democratic officials steadily pointed to signs of renewed life in a party which may have reached its low-point after the 2004 elections, when presidential nominee John Kerry badly lost Florida and House Democrats slid to a scant 36 seats in the 120-member House.

Since then, Democratic Party registration has grown – to a 700,000-voter edge over Florida Republicans, helped in part by enthusiasm for Barack Obama’s candidacy last fall. No statewide Republican incumbents are seeking re-election next year, and term-limits in the House and Senate also are pushing far more Republicans out of office.

Thurman said that since 2004, Florida voters have been on the party’s side.

“Well, if I had told you that over the next four years, we'd send to Washington three more Democrats, add nine new Democrats to the Legislature, elect our first new Cabinet member in Alex Sink and deliver Florida's 27 electoral votes for Barack Obama, the pundits would have said we were crazy,” Thurman said.

But amid the chest-thumping, it’s clear the party has a long way to go.

Democrats are outnumbered 76-44 in the House and 26-14 in the Senate, and while three Agriculture Commissioner candidates and a pair of Democratic contenders for Attorney General were working the crowd Saturday, no candidate has emerged for the post held by Sink, now a candidate for governor.

Democratic chances in Florida also may be shaped greatly by how Obama fares in his first two years in the White House, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson conceded. In meetings with U.S. Senate Democrats, Nelson told the crowd the president has said, “My entire presidency will ride on the passage of health care reform.”

In turn, Nelson said success adopting a health care overhaul would prove “helpful to folks like Alex” running in Florida. But Obama’s health care initiative continues to be buffeted in Congress and his once sky-high popularity in Florida has flagged in recent weeks, polls show.

“I think it’s clear that many Floridians are anxious about the kind of change the president is looking to bring to America,” Katie Gordon, a Florida Republican Party spokeswoman, said Saturday. “If they would actually listen to what the people of Florida are saying, Democrats might not be so optimistic about next year.”

But several workshop sessions at the conference – which ends Sunday – tried to plot a course for next year.

Hispanic voters are emerging as a powerful and growing bloc within the party – especially across the crucial Interstate-4 section, where voters from Tampa to Daytona Beach are seen as key to victory for any statewide candidate.

Fourteen percent of eligible voters in Florida are Hispanic – and 56 percent of them voted for George W. Bush in the 2004 contest, only to turn 57 percent in favor of Obama four years later.

Similarly, in 2004, 414,000 Hispanics were registered Republicans, compared with 369,000 allied with the Democratic Party. Again, last year those numbers flip-flopped – with 513,000 Hispanics now registered Democratic, compared with 445,000 Hispanic Republicans, party analysts said.

“The Hispanic vote is what controls Central Florida and Central Florida controls Florida,” said James Auffant, an Orlando-area consultant and party activist.

U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, also urged Democrats to continue a focus on voter-registration and expand the use of absentee ballots – which he said helped him defeat four-term Republican incumbent Ric Keller last fall.

Given Florida demographics, “There are few places in the state that are so red that we can’t turn them blue,” Grayson said.

Critical for Democrats, too, are the FairDistrictsFlorida ballot initiatives, whose supporters were circulating petitions at Saturday’s conference. The ballot measures would revamp the legislative and congressional redistricting process, blocking districts from being drawn for political considerations or protecting incumbents.

Democrats see the measures, if approved by voters, as likely breaking Republican control of the Legislature and congressional delegation, giving Democrats a chance to regain power when lines are redrawn in 2012, following the next U.S. Census.

Nelson tried to emphasize the broad reach of the ballot proposals Saturday, telling Democrats, “You’ve got to play this one for keeps.”

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