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Originally published Wednesday, September 26, 2012 at 12:45 PM

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A salad of voters mark swing-state Florida’s central region

Florida’s Interstate 4 corridor through Central Florida represents a mix of political allegiances, writes Froma Harrop. Right now, Mitt Romney’s hold on conservative seniors in that mix is slipping.

Syndicated columnist

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LADY LAKE, Fla. – Lunching at Applebee’s in this hyper-groomed shopping center, I’m tempted to buttonhole some of the retirees enjoying their leisure as Fox News jabbers down from the bar. This, after all, is a gathering place near the storied retirement community known as The Villages, a huge conservative enclave smack in the middle of Florida’s I-4 corridor.

Interstate 4 is 130 miles of congested, accident-prone highway connecting Tampa near the Gulf Coast, Orlando in the center and Daytona Beach on the Atlantic. Famous as the swing region of the swing state of Florida, the I-4 corridor is a politically chaotic mix of tech workers, service employees living off Disney and its environs, students and a growing Latino population, itself divided by national origin. And, of course, retirees.

The Villages is a development crossing four counties. Its 60,000 residents are largely white, well-to-do and Republican. It is here that Paul Ryan brought his mom to pound home the Republican claim (inaccurate, by the way) that the party’s plan for reforming Medicare would not touch these voters. That’s an important political message. Although these folk planned and saved for many happy years on the crew-cut golf greens, their calculations undoubtedly included Medicare health coverage and Social Security benefits.

Anyhow, as I fork into the Fiesta Chicken Chopped Salad, I decide not to interview three randomly chosen older people — and from that tiny sample, weave elephantine generalizations about who will win Florida. Consider: I might have happened upon two of the 25 percent of Village residents who are Democrats and concluded, “Hey, this place is going Democratic.”

Besides, this was mere hours after release of the tape in which Mitt Romney scorned the 47 percent of Americans benefiting from government programs as self-pitying “victims.” That news item might not have sunk in yet at The Villages.

A couple of days later, a Romney supporter from The Villages told a TV reporter that his man wasn’t really talking about his Social Security, which he had already paid for through taxes. The retiree was half right. Social Security is indeed funded by a dedicated payroll tax; not a penny of it comes from income taxes. But there was no way Romney could get to the 47 percent figure without including Social Security and Medicare, two gigantic government programs.

For the bigger corridor picture, I spoke with Terri Fine, professor of politics at the University of Central Florida. Tampa, with its large Cuban-American population, tends to be conservative, she explained, while Central Florida “is probably more purple.” The Latino population there is more heavily Puerto Rican and liberal. Meanwhile, the 60,000 students at the immense UCF campus in Orlando could offset some of The Village residents.

This is normally a politically active and progressive student body, Fine says, “and because of the way certain issues such as reproductive choice have been associated with one party (the Democrats), there’s been more activism.”

Meanwhile, Central Florida has an unusually high percentage of migrants from other parts of the country, many of whom brought their politics with them. As I-4 heads east and north to Daytona, the population tends to grow poorer. Central Florida has many media markets, and given the stampede of political advertising, they’re having a plush fall season.

Romney’s hold on the I-4 corridor will obviously depend on consolidating support of the conservative, older white voters. With a new national poll suggesting that Romney’s 20-point lead among those 60 and older has shriveled to four points, one might more confidently predict that the Sunshine State is going to Barack Obama.

My opinion? Applebee’s Fiesta Chicken Salad is quite good.

© 2012, The Providence Journal Co.

Providence Journal columnist Froma Harrop's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is fharrop@projo.com

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