10/24/2012 05:48 EDT | Updated 12/24/2012 05:12 EST

Florida's diversity makes key swing state a tough nut to crack for Obama, Romney

POMPANO BEACH, Fla. - It's almost lunch hour on a windy Florida day and a Pompano Beach delicatessen is alive with political chatter — not surprising in a key battleground state that will play a critical role in the outcome of the presidential election in just 12 days.

This week's debate between President Barack Obama and Republican contender Mitt Romney, held in nearby Boca Raton, is on replay on the TV screen looming over the deli and its ample displays of bagels, lox, smoked whitefish, potato salad, dill pickles and other goodies.

Jimmy Grizzaffi and his wife are taking orders behind the counter at Sunshine Bagels and Deli from a wide array of customers, including an evangelical preacher and an elderly bon vivant who insists he's both a former mobster and a one-time Montreal Alouette.

Denise Grizzaffi mutters under her breath as she hears Romney accuse Obama of being anti-Israel on the TV overhead.

"He's not anti-Israel," Jimmy Grizzaffi weighs in after running down the day's lunch specials.

"It's nonsense. I believe Obama is a friend of Israel and always has been. He's been a supporter of Israel but who wants more conflict, more war, after the past 11 years? Obama is sensible on Israel; he's doing a damn good job and he deserves a second term."

The president, meantime, has already taken the stage at a tennis centre in Delray Beach, just 25 minutes up Ocean Boulevard, to rally his supporters in a state where Romney suddenly has the edge.

Close to 10,000 people showed up to cheer him on, including a pizza parlour owner who became famous — and was subsequently shunned by some of his Republican patrons — for embracing the president in an exuberant bear hug earlier this year.

"I'm a Republican," Scot Van Duzer of nearby Fort Pierce, about 90 minutes up the Atlantic coast, said to boos from the ethnically diverse crowd.

"But hold it. Elections are not about party lines, but about picking the right man for the job."

Like the crowd in Delray Beach, the crowd at Sunshine Bagels also reflects the makeup of Florida, one of the most populous states in the union and also one of its most culturally, demographically and ethnically diverse.

Among them this day is a Latino construction worker having a sandwich, a Jewish senior contemplating some lox, the well-heeled strolling in from their nearby seaside mansions for fresh bagels and bronzed young athletes hungry for grub after a morning of kite-surfing in near gale-force coastal winds.

The Grizzaffis' employee, 20-year-old waitress Holly Link, says she's just read the Obama campaign's newly released booklet about the president's plans for a second term.

The president has her vote, she adds quietly, nervous to speak too loudly in case she offends any pro-Romney customers.

One of those Romney supporters, in particular, is trying to convince another deli regular to vote for the Republican.

Bob Coy is a local celebrity, the pastor at Fort Lauderdale's Calvary Chapel, one of the largest evangelical churches in the U.S.

Coy is arguing with Ken, the toupee-ed, self-described hoodlum who intends to cast his ballot for Obama. Ken won't give his last name — "I have too many enemies," he laughs — and insists he once played for the Alouettes, although he didn't like the CFL.

"I am deeply concerned about Obama's foreign policy and the way that he has behaved towards Israel is not good for America," Coy says as Grizzaffi's wife purses her lips behind the cash register.

"I want your grandchildren and my grandchildren to have a full life," Coy tells Ken, "and the only way they'll have a full life is if we have a country, and the only way they'll have a country is if we have a strong military and a strong economy."

These are the types of arguments playing out in coffee shops, at water coolers and across dining room tables throughout the country, but in states like Florida, Ohio and Virginia — key swing states that will determine who ultimately wins the White House — political debate is unavoidable.

In south Florida, a popular vacation destination for Canadians, political ads litter the airwaves. Lawn signs are everywhere. The Sunshine State's 29 electoral college votes constitute the largest prize among the battleground states.

Romney has had momentum in Florida in recent weeks, squeaking past Obama in the polls.

He needs that momentum. Florida is a must-win state for Romney — if he loses here, he'd have to perform the near-impossible and sweep the remaining eight battleground states in order to win the White House.

For Obama, on the other hand, Florida would help him seal the deal. It's not an absolute necessity for his political survival but a loss in Florida would make his path to victory that much more of a nail-biter for his supporters.

Memories of the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, meantime, are still fresh in Florida. The Obama campaign is even invoking the famous Florida recount in a new campaign ad.

The ad, released Wednesday, reminds Americans of the 32-day national drama that unfolded in Florida after the vote there ended in a near-tie. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately stopped the Florida recount, effectively naming Bush the winner of the state — and consequently the 43rd president of the United States — by 537 votes out of nearly six million cast.

For voters who think their ballots won't make a difference, the narrator says in the Obama ad, "back then there were probably 537 people who felt the same way. Make your voice heard."

Florida is a state is defined by sharp class divides made even more apparent over the past four years as it has struggled to pull itself out of a devastating economic recession that took hold just as Obama was taking office.

The mortgage foreclosure crisis hit Floridians particularly hard, with many losing homes not far from the oceanfront estates owned by multi-millionaires who sailed through the crisis relatively unscathed.

The state is home to almost three dozen billionaires, and has the highest percentage of senior citizens in the nation at 17.3 per cent.

But the conventional wisdom that those seniors would cast their ballots for Obama given their concerns about proposals to privatize Medicare by Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, isn't being reflected in the polls.

"There have been a lot of false assumptions about Florida's seniors, and the notion that they would vote en masse for Obama this election is the biggest," says Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

The state's seniors are 42 per cent Republican, she added, and 41 per cent Democrat — and they've been fairly entrenched throughout the presidential election campaign.

"Older people tend to be loyal to their party, so the suggestion that Republicans would go blue over Medicare, when they're being bombarded by so many confusing statistics and negative ads — when there's that much conflicting noise, they're going to stick with the party they know," MacManus said.

The state's Latino population, as well, is so unique that it's silly for anyone to have assumed there's a monolithic Hispanic vote in Florida, she added.

The gap between Obama and Romney among Latinos is far smaller in the Sunshine State than in other states — 30 per cent are registered Republican voters while 39 per cent are Democratic. And 29 per cent of them have no party affiliation and tend to vote according to their own local interests, MacManus said.

"The Latino vote is much more diverse and harder to reach because country of origin is a big driver in terms of what motivates them," she said. "Puerto Ricans are going to vote differently than Cubans, who will vote differently than Colombians."

Indeed, Florida is one of the toughest nuts for either campaign to crack, she adds.

"You can't take the demographics four years prior and believe it'll be mirrored this year. There are tons of churning demographics within Florida, even including lots of population movement among various counties and districts from year to year."

Nonetheless, the minds of voters don't seem to be changing in the state less than two weeks before the vote.

While Coy chides Grizzaffi for his intention to vote for Obama — "You can't afford Obamacare!" he tells him — the small businessman is having none of it.

"The president is a good man; he has my vote," he says.

Dwanne Clayton, a 35-year-old native of Delray Beach, was over the moon after Obama's rally.

"He didn't have to say anything else to convince me. I'm pumped up about him keeping people excited about going to the polls," Clayton said.

Drumming up that kind of excitement will be key in Florida in the remaining few days until the election, says MacManus.

"If Obama can ramp up the enthusiasm among the Latinos and especially the 18-29 year-olds, he'll win. Young people in Florida overwhelmingly prefer the president. But it will really come down to who gets out the vote — the challenge for both Obama and Romney is voter enthusiasm, and getting their supporters out to the polls."