I-4 Corridor Is the Highway to Presidential Political Heaven

Cheryl Meeks is owner of Parkesdale Farm Market - just off I-4 - which was visited by Barack Obama and John McCain during the 2008 campaign.
TAMPA (2012-1-30) -

Florida’s primary is Tuesday and the Republican presidential candidates are focusing on the Interstate-4 corridor, called the “highway to presidential political heaven” because by some estimates, it’s home to almost half of Florida’s GOP voters.

The 132-mile ribbon of concrete links Florida’s Atlantic Coast to the Gulf Coast and connects two of Florida’s largest media markets, Tampa Bay and Orlando.

Just two blocks off I-4 in downtown Orlando is the Orange County Supervisor of Elections Office, This past week, it saw a steady stream of early voters and others dropping off absentee ballots like Hilda Kolb.

The retiree timed her trip to the elections headquarters with her volunteer day at the local hospital to save on gas. Formerly a registered Democrat, Kolb is not happy with either party.

“I changed to Republican temporarily last election because I am not an Obama person.” Kolb said. The 82-year-old willingly gave her age, but wouldn’t say who she voted for adding there are some things she prefers to keep to herself.

Yet, Kolb’s frustration does not surprise Susan MacManus, a longtime political science professor at the University of South Florida.

“The dominate thing Floridians are looking for is someone who can win Florida,” MacManus said. “Republican pride was greatly damaged when they lost the state and it turned blue in 2008. They don’t want a repeat.”

The highway in Orlando is lined with hotels and theme parks like Universal Studios and Disney World. Florida’s tourism industry was hit hard by the recession, shedding thousands of jobs.

A short drive west, at a an airstrip near Polk City, Donald Coleman had just finished his first ride in a biplane. He and his wife Paula moved to Valrico, Florida from Ohio. Both have already voted for Newt Gingrich.

“He’s just more forceful,” Paula Coleman said. “We can’t have a wimpy president again.”

Her husband, Donald Coleman also wants a more decisive president, “If you’re going to make a decision, make a decision, don’t wait months.”

But not all Florida Republicans have made up their minds. Cheryl Meeks, lifelong Republican and owner of the Parkesdale Farm Market in Plant City, has to do some more studying before she decides who will get her vote.

“Every time I read something, I say okay, I’m going to go that way and then I read something else and then I’m going to go that way,” Meeks said.

The Parkesdale Market is popular because its fresh strawberry shortcake which draws residents and politicians alike. Meeks said in 2008 Barack Obama and John McCain bot visited with her customers.

The I-4 corridor that ends in Daytona Beach originates in Ybor City, Tampa’s historic Hispanic neighborhood. Hispanics make up 11 percent of Republican voters but the majority are Cuban-American and live in Miami.

The Tampa Bay region had one of the state’s biggest increases in registered Republicans. That includes 18-year-old Derek Enderlot who skipped high school last week to attend a Newt Gingrich rally in St. Petersburg with his parents.

“It makes sense just the way the Republicans, the conservatives think,” Enderlot said. “It’s cutting back on spending, saving money and doing what you can to keep your finances under control,”

With almost half of Florida’s GOP voters living along Interstate-4, voters like Derek Enderlot may ultimately decide which Republican candidate will win Florida’s primary.

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