YBOR CITY, FLA – It was still pitch black when the lines began to form – thousands of Florida residents turning out in the pre-dawn of a Thursday morning for a chance to see President Barack Obama. The crowd was diverse – there were mothers with small babies – one just 11 days old; disabled people in wheelchairs; men with dreadlocks and women in business attire; old and young, black and white, all waiting patiently for more than two hours for the president to show up. He was a few minutes late, having stopped off at a Krispy Kreme to buy donuts for the firefighters at Station No. 14.
In the meantime, former Governor Charlie Crist warmed up the crowd. Crist had been a Republican, until he was all but hounded out of the Party after being photographed embracing Obama during the president's 2009 tour to promote his stimulus package. Crist is now an independent and campaigns for the president. When Obama finally arrived, the close to 10,000 people crowded into Centennial Park went wild. Most could not see him, and the sound system was not the best, but it did not matter much. Men climbed trees, children perched on shoulders, the fortunate tall ones in the crowd held iPads over their heads.
These people were Obama supporters all the way.
"I think he's earned another four years," said Carl Kennedy, a Tampa resident who works in construction. "I like the health care plan. I'm in favor of the stimulus package, I just think he should have done even more. And I'm a registered Republican."
Obama delivered a short but spirited speech, blasting Republican challenger Mitt Romney for espousing economic policies that could only harm the fragile recovery.
"We can't go back to what got us into this mess," he said. "We've got to stick with the policies that will get us out of this mess."
The president used many of his standard campaign riffs, including his now famous diagnosis of his opponent.
"He's hoping you're going to come down with a severe case of Romnesia just before you cast your ballot," said the president, to loud applause.
Obama then clarified the symptoms of this dread disease.
"You can't remember what you just said last week ... You start thinking Governor Romney wanted to save the auto industry … there's a sudden fuzziness about what's on your web site. … Don't worry. This is a curable condition and Obamacare covers preexisting conditions."
The crowd erupted into a chant of "four more years" at that point.
The choice of venue was not accidental. Ybor City is a small historic neighborhood in Tampa made famous in the late 19th century as a cigar-rolling hub. It used to have a large Cuban population, although now it is ethnically more mixed.
It is also located in Hillsborough County, which, as several residents pointed out, will be one of the decisive centers for the November 6 election. Obama, apparently, thought so, too.
"I believe in you. I'm asking you to keep believing in me. … we will win Hillsborough County again. We'll win Florida again. We'll win this election," he said, in closing.
The president looked tired and sounded hoarse. He has been crisscrossing the country in a last, frantic burst of campaigning, trying to gain a firmer foothold in what has become an extremely close race.
Florida is key to winning the presidency; with its 29 electoral votes and politically mixed population, it could once again play the kingmaker, as it did in 2000.
Those who came to Centennial Park are determined that Florida will go Obama's way.
"He is the most congruent candidate we've ever had," said Debrina Carr, a specialist in medical data bases. "His heart and mind work together for the benefit of everyone."
According to Carr, the Affordable Healthcare Act, also known as "Obamacare," has done a lot for the medical community.
"The insurance industry does not like it," she said. "They are the 'skimmers,' those who artificially create profit, with little value added. But I have multiple sclerosis, and this program has allowed me to keep contributing, to live a full life. Otherwise, with a pre-existing condition I would not have health insurance, and would be taking much more than I could give back."
"Obamacare" seemed to be a big seller with many of the audience.
Danielle Halperin, who teaches 9th grade English in an inner-city Pittsburgh school, is waiting impatiently for the Affordable Healthcare Act to be fully implemented.
"I am 26, and can no longer be covered by my parents' health insurance," she said. "I was born with flat feet; that is a pre-existing condition and no one will insure me."
Halperin is also a big fan of Obama's social policies.
"He's pro-choice and pro-gay marriage. Getting rid of 'don't ask, don't tell' was a great thing," she added, referring to the policy that prohibited gays from serving openly in the military.
Vicki Pollyea is on full disability. She has a degenerative neuro-muscular disease, and has been in a wheelchair most of her life. She is very appreciative of the government program that makes it possible for her to get adequate medical care.
"Medicare is the best thing since sliced bread," she said. "I love it."
Pollyea is nervous about the election, which, she says, is "scary close."
"The Republicans scare me to death," she said. "It is because of their ultra-conservative social policies and their total disregard for anyone not in the top 5 percent."
She shook her head and laughed.
"The Republican Party has convinced people that this 'trickle down' stuff is true," she said. "Trickle down? They are peeing on our legs!"