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Presidential campaign trail winds through South County

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image Vice President Joe Biden was joined on the stage with his daughter Ashley and Senator Bill Nelson during what was billed as a grassroots campaign stop in Sun City Center. Photo Mitch Traphagen

With just under two weeks left in the campaign, it is possible, although as of yet unscheduled, that the trail that leads to the White House will again run through South County.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

SUN CITY CENTER — Some people may question the tastefulness of dressing up as the grim reaper and walking the streets of a retirement community, but in the closing weeks of a contentious presidential election, all bets are off regarding taste. Mr. Reaper made an appearance to protest the visit of Vice President Joe Biden and he held a sign stating that Obama would be the death of America.

The roughly 1,200 people crammed into the Community Association Community Hall, however, did not seem to agree with that ominous message as they gave the Vice President a rousing welcome to the community on Friday. The Vice President emerged to thunderous applause, joined by his daughter Ashley and Florida Senator Bill Nelson.

Underscoring the importance of the Tampa Bay Area and the I-4 corridor, Republican vice-presidential nominee Congressman Paul Ryan was, at the same time, up the road in Tampa, meeting with business people, staff and students at the University of South Florida.

By 9 a.m. on Friday morning, a full two and a half hours before the Vice President was scheduled to speak, traffic on South Pebble Beach Blvd. leading to the Community Hall was backed up for more than a half mile and crawling. The backup helped to create a circus-like atmosphere with pockets of people holding Romney-Ryan signs and a mobile billboard — complete with the Vice President’s smiling face — advertising opposition to the Obama-Biden campaign.

Closer to the Community Hall, two women enthusiastically waving Romney-Ryan signs alternately received cheers and jeers, largely from those in passing golf carts, vehicles that were still able to move in the traffic. The cheers outnumbered the jeers, perhaps, but few in the crawling cars seemed to respond at all. Given the slow pace of traffic, any confrontation would have been extended past the point of comfort in a polite society.

Inside the hall, the audience stood and cheered when a group of men wearing yellow “Firefighters for Obama-Biden” t-shirts entered to take their seats. They were repeatedly asked to stand and pose for photos.

The line of people waiting to enter the hall stretched down the block as each person was subjected to a security screening. As the hall slowly filled, the temperature inside rose uncomfortably as the air conditioning struggled to offset the heat of so many people. Organizing for America volunteers began handing out cups of water, first to the most elderly, and then to anyone who asked.

The audience largely consisted of seniors but also included a significant number of younger people, including children. The chance to see a sitting Vice President of the United States was, perhaps, worth missing a few hours of work or school.

The visit to Sun City Center might seem an odd choice. According to data from the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Office, John McCain handily won the community in 2008. In a close election, however, perhaps the unconventional is what could prove decisive. The filled hall was a strong indication that no single community is owned by anyone, nor can anything be taken for granted.

The Vice President spoke largely but not exclusively to the seniors, addressing issues ranging from Medicare to women’s health. After all, seniors have children and grandchildren that will be impacted by actions taken today, tomorrow and next year. The nearly 40-minute speech was mixed with applause and laughter and, as the rising room temperature required a loosening of the tie, the man at the podium occasionally was less Vice President and more Joe. It was a stump speech, perhaps, but few in the room seemed to doubt the sincerity of the words or the passion in the delivery. At the conclusion of the speech, the Vice President waded into the crowd, shook hands, gave hugs, and posed for photos, with no appearance of being in a hurry to leave Sun City Center.

Afterwards, the outbound traffic began to stack up again on South Pebble Beach Blvd. Some time later, the Vice President’s motorcade departed the Community Hall parking lot. Roughly halfway between the hall and Sun City Center Blvd., one homeowner allowed the mobile billboard to park in his driveway, offering an unrestricted and largely unavoidable view of the campaign ad using Mr. Biden’s smiling face, to everyone leaving the event — including, of course, the Vice President himself.

With just under two weeks left in the campaign, it is possible, although as of yet unscheduled, that the trail that leads to the White House will again run through South County. There was no reply from an email sent to the Romney-Ryan campaign about the possibility of a South County visit in the coming days, but President Obama is scheduled to visit Tampa on Thursday. Regardless of the man or the party, should a South County visit take place, there is little doubt that any of the candidates will fail to see the thoughts of both sides. Sun City Center, a normally quiet retirement community, certainly provided it; largely politely, of course, but leaving little doubt that nothing can or should be taken for granted.


102512 Vice President Biden - Images by Mitch Traphagen

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