Finally Florida

A rogue state meets presidential candidates who pine for its fickle heart.

It's May 21, and residents of the Sunrise Lakes condos are getting a lesson in the virtue of punctuality. Though it's three hours before Hillary Clinton will arrive at her scheduled campaign stop, theelderly crowd is being diverted to an overflow room. Some turn back toward home. They may be late for the candidate, but they can stillbe earlyfor dinner. It's a quarter to 2.

In the clubhouse ballroom, a balding lounge singer in a black vest and bow tie croons the Dean Martin number "When You're Smiling." He's accompanied by a balding, tuxedoed keyboardist who soon takes the mike to warble Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York." Hours move glacially here.

Thank God for accidental entertainers like Mario Cusuga, a diminutive Filipino who's dressed all in black and wears an Elvis-style pompadour and yellow-tinted glasses. He clutches a dog-eared photograph of himself alongside supermodel Cindy Crawford at a local Rooms to Go.

"What does Cindy Crawford have to do with a Clinton rally?" a reporter asks.

Mario whips an album from his bag to reveal a few hundred photographs of himself standing next to all manner of celebrities. President George W. Bush, aging supermodel Paulina Porizkova, the king of Ghana (Ghana has a king?), Vivica A. Fox, Al Gore, the queen of Vietnam (Vietnam has a queen?), Tom Hanks. Each appears baffled to be filling a photo frame with a grinning Mario, who is flashing a thumbsup, his trademark.

Mario has come from West Palm Beach to add Clinton to his collection.

Shortly after 4 p.m., the traveling press arrives — a sign that Clinton can't be far behind. They're underwhelmed by what they've seen of Sunrise from the bus: "Bethesda with palm trees," grumbles a tweed-coated reporter as he takes his reserved seat.

At a quarter to 5, Clinton finally appears, smiling like a Lotto winner, bounding up onto the stage with her daughter Chelsea, who gets the privilege of introducing, "My mom, the next president of the United States...."

Well, one out of two ain't bad.

Clinton wastes little time reminding the audience of the events of 2000, lest they forget that disputed Florida votes swung the presidency to that ogre Bush. "We're seeing that right now in Zimbabwe," Clinton says. "Tragically, an election was held, the president lost, and they refused to abide by the will of the people. So we cannot take for granted our precious right to vote."

Wait. Did she just compare the Sunshine State to Zimbabwe? Harsh. But no one seems to mind. Minutes after the speech, two elderly ladies are still sitting at their table, basking in the Hillary-ousness. "She will try to fight for all the things that we always wanted but didn't have a voice," says Lillian. "Only a woman could voice this for us."

Ruth boasts she electioneered for Hillary in January. Asked to assess Obama, she says, "I would vote for him, but I wouldn't electioneer for him. It's the principle of it."

What principle is that, exactly?

"Just the principle," she says, patting a reporter's forearm. "You know what I mean."

Soon the Clinton campaign bus chugs south for an appearance at the University of Miami's BankUnited Center. This is a destination for the Hillary hard-core, judging by the thousands of people who form a line outside the arena, all festooned with Hillary buttons and T-shirts.

Hillary campaign staffers leave nothing to chance. Like florists making a bouquet, they pluck a multiracial, multigeneration backdrop from the crowd.

Doris Greene, a 46-year-old teacher from Miami, isn't stage-worthy, but she's thrilled with her front-row seat, the better to showcase a pink T-shirt with four portraits of Hillary, Warhol-style. "Oh, have you seen her lately?" says Doris. "She's been through so much. So much. But she still looks so great. So radiant."

When she arrives around eight, Hillary looks unradiant. Exhausted would be a better description. "Won't Back Down" comes on the loudspeaker, but Tom Petty's next lyric, "ain't no easy way out," seems most apt. Clinton has already ditched the Zimbabwe line, which was pounced upon by pundits like Andrew Sullivan while she motored here from Sunrise.

So Clinton tries another tack: "We cannot have a nominee who only represents 48 out of 50 states," she says, adding that after her victory in the previous day's Kentucky primary, "more people have voted for me than have voted for my opponent."

Problem is, her vote calculation depends on not only counting the Florida and Michigan primaries but also dismissing ballots from caucus states that went for Obama.

Some 18 hours later, Obama arrives at the B'Nai Torah Congregation on Southwest 18th Street in Boca Raton. Yarmulkes punctuate the rows of silver and blue heads like so many black and tan ellipses. From the podium, Obama looks out upon a sea of aging, heavily perfumed flesh; Hawaiian-print shirts; and pastel pantsuits. It's a far cry from the hipster scene he's encountered elsewhere, but the road to the White House goes through Florida Jewry.

"If you got one of these e-mails that says I'm a Muslim ... not true," he says. "I have never been a Muslim."

Not that there's anything wrong with being Muslim — just that Jewish culture has clashed with Islam these past few millennia.

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