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GOP leads Democrats in early-voting turnout

The Florida Democratic offices in a crowded storefront in Ybor City look like a bunker lined with relics from the last war.

Barack Obama “Hope” posters adorn the walls as young staffers crunch data and try to monitor dozens of field offices around the state that are directing the thousands of volunteers who power their get-out-the-vote phone calls and door-to-door work.

Many of the same staff who oiled the machine that helped put a Democrat in the White House in 2008 are now watching a potential tsunami of a different kind, a surge of enthusiastic Republican voters that threatens to swamp their efforts.

“Yesterday seems like a week ago,” says Ashley Walker, who runs a coordinated campaign for Florida’s Democratic candidates, fueled by millions of dollars from the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Governors Association.

Florida Democrats have spent the last year boasting that the gains they made with the $75 million-plus Obama Florida operation — better voter targeting, technological improvements and a wave of new voters — would generate a rare victory for a party poised nationally for a potentially massive bloodletting in congressional and gubernatorial contests.

But it isn’t turning out that way — at least not yet.

Election data show Republicans are on a verge of an unheralded feat in Florida elections — winning the early-voting battle.

Through the first eight days of early voting, 491,764 voters have cast ballots. And although Republicans have never out-performed Democrats in early voting, the GOP has built a stunning lead of 50,700 voters through Monday, according to an Orlando Sentinel/Sun Sentinel analysis.

Republicans out-performed Democrats on seven of the first eight days, including last Saturday when Democrats held a massive “accountability” rally to try to fire up their base.

Republicans traditionally perform better in persuading absentee voters to mail in ballots. When those figures are included, the GOP lead swells to more than 200,000 votes cast with seven days to go until the election.

Of the 1.1 million Floridians who have cast ballots so far, 52 percent are Republicans — and only 34 percent are Democrats.

“Democrat claims of a stronger ground game are contradicted by the data and appear to be a brazen attempt to motivate a depressed base,” Republican National Committee political director Gentry Collins said in a memo released Tuesday night.

GOP effort massive

While much of the focus in Florida’s gubernatorial contest has been the unprecedented television ad war that has cost more than $45 million so far, both Republican Rick Scott and Democrat Alex Sink have mobilized massive efforts to steer their voters to the polls or get them to mail in ballots.

But Scott has taken the art of “chasing” absentee and early voters to a new level. Heading into the stretch run leading to Nov. 2, Scott has spent more than $5 million on mail and phones — $3 million of it in the GOP primary — to reach out to the 1.5 million Floridians who received mail-in ballots this fall.

Scott’s ground game was cited by defeated primary foe Bill McCollum, who lamented that he lost because he couldn’t match Scott’s appeal to early voters.

In the general election, Scott’s campaign is financing a presidential-level operation using live callers to reach out and touch Republicans, Democrats and independents and track which voters have mailed in their ballots and whether they are leaning toward Scott.

“We’re going to win big,” Scott told a crowd at The Villages on Tuesday, the sprawling retirement community that was one of the first stops on his six-day bus trip across the state.

Despite the numbers so far, Democrats say they are poised to surprise many doomsayers, and that the 153,000 independents who have already cast ballots are trending toward Sink.

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