ALONG FLORIDA'S I-4 CORRIDOR (AP) — Beyond the theme park billboards that promise worlds of fantasy and adventure there is reality along this road that ripples across the state, small measures of struggle and survival in today's sputtering economy.
For Eve and Michael Dobbins, that reality is a cash register. If there's $9 in it after toiling 10-hour days in their cupcake shop in Tampa, that's a disaster. If there's $200? Reason to celebrate.
For Travis Joyner, it's a gas pump. A few pennies up or down matter to the Orlando theme park worker trying to chip away at $60,000-plus in student loans while earning only about $10 an hour.
And for Larry Szrom, it's a job. He makes a fraction of what he used to earn, but the former chemical engineer, mortgage broker and real estate developer is thrilled to be working as a teacher.
All four are finding their way in a once-booming Florida economy that was battered by the recession and is now recovering at a frustratingly slow pace. Once a symbol of explosive Sunbelt development, where construction cranes seemed as common as palm trees, this haven for retirees, tourists and Northern transplants is trying to recapture its glow. But first the state has to bounce back from a housing bust and a steep plunge in population growth.
Florida's economy is center stage in President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney's high-stakes campaign for the rich trove of 29 electoral votes. One of the biggest prizes still up for grabs, this state, a hard-fought White House battleground in 2000, could be just as pivotal this year. And no turf may be more important than the I-4 corridor, the heart of swing voter country, home to foreclosures and fresh starts, pain and prosperity, hope, anxiety and a frustration with politics — America in microcosm.
If the glittery, crowded empire of Mickey Mouse offers a sunny view of Florida's recovery, a half-hour away on I-4, a cavernous warehouse provides a stark contrast.
Walking past rows of floor-to-ceiling mayonnaise jars, ketchup bottles, soup cans, baby carriages, blankets and tons of other supplies, Dave Krepcho, CEO of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, doesn't mince words:
"We have a disaster going on, but it's an economic disaster," he says. "Month in and month out, I can't believe the numbers."
Consider the food bank's tally sheet:
In the past four years, food distribution to 500 pantries, shelters, and other relief agencies in the six-county area has jumped about 60 percent. In the last year alone, that amounted to 36 million pounds of food.
In a four-year period concluding at the end of 2009, the number of people served by the food bank skyrocketed from nearly 300,000 to 732,000 — and Krepcho says he hasn't seen any decline in need since then.
He estimates about 30 percent of those seeking help are first-timers. They're blue-collar and white-collar, many middle class, even some upper middle class. They include college-educated couples and professionals. Krepcho knows their stories: The engineer who lost his job, his wife found work as a billing clerk, but they still couldn't avoid foreclosure; the teacher who migrated to Florida for a job, only to see it disappear a year later in budget cuts.
"I don't see any bright spots and I'm looking for them," Krepcho says, noting that at a recent meeting of his board, he asked: "'Do any of you see any?' There were just blank stares."
Krepcho says people are angry and tired of political gridlock.
"A lot of people who voted for Obama may be disappointed because things haven't turned around, but then they realize to a larger extent he has his hands tied behind his back with Congress. .... (They) feel just absolutely powerless that they can do anything about this whole situation in Washington. They feel it's way beyond them."
For some recession survivors, that frustration raises a bigger question: Does any candidate have the answers?
Larry Szrom, a registered Republican who supported John McCain in 2008, is now leaning toward Obama. He dismisses Romney's claims that his business skills will get the economy moving. "He says, 'I know how to create jobs.' Guess what? He doesn't," Szrom says. "I don't think anyone truly knows what we need to create jobs."
Szrom's own career was derailed by the downturn. First, he lost his job as a chief operations officer for a developer after the housing bubble burst. He became a painting contractor, but when that business dried up, he was searching for work again.
Szrom blames himself for trying to cash in on a housing boom that was roaring along at unsustainable pace. "I convinced myself (it would continue) and I paid my own personal price," he says. "My issue is all those making the big bucks in finance and Wall Street did not have to pay the price. They didn't lose their jobs."
There is a happy ending, though: Szrom found work as a high school chemistry teacher — a job he loves.
Just minutes away, Marisol Walker is hoping for her own comeback.
She's fighting to keep the home in Ocoee, outside Orlando, that she and her husband bought about a year before his business collapsed. He'd serviced fire extinguishers to merchants and restaurants, until many had their own money troubles. Walker says they haven't been able to pay the mortgage in 1½ years.
"I'm not ready to throw in the towel," she says. "I get real stubborn. ... I say this isn't going to beat me."
Walker works part-time, while her husband is trying to restart his business. They've sold their wedding bands and furniture for extra cash and receive $241 a month in food stamps. At first, Walker says she thought the aid would be embarrassing, but then concluded, "I don't feel like I've really done anything wrong."
Walker finds the current political debate alienating.
"I listen to politicians talking and it makes me angry," she says. "I want them to explain to me how two hard-working, willing workers are struggling and have lost everything. ... I don't think it matters who's running the government. I don't think who's president really affects my life. I just don't see how any of them are helping any of us living in the real world."
Four years ago, Barack Obama's message of hope propelled him to the White House. Now he and Romney face the daunting challenge of selling economic remedies to voters wary of election-year promises.
Both candidates have been frequent visitors to Florida and constant TV presences, pouring in tens of millions of dollars into commercials in this incredibly diverse state.
Florida has several sprawling cities as well as vast rural areas. It reflects Southern heritage in the north, while transplanted Northeasterners and Midwesterners flock to the south. There are retirees, immigrants from Latin America, Haiti and beyond, a large Jewish population and a lot of veterans.
"It's like a jigsaw puzzle," says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida. "Take any group out of the equation and you can't complete the picture that yields the presidency."
That demography makes for tight races, most famously former President George W. Bush's eyelash-thin margin in 2000, culminating in a Supreme Court showdown. Obama edged McCain by almost 3 points in 2008.
One economic issue already surfacing here is the plan by Paul Ryan, Romney's vice presidential pick, to revamp Medicare with a voucher-like system that some independent budget analysts say would likely mean higher costs for seniors.
Obama's campaign recently released an online video featuring worried Florida seniors; Romney's campaign countered by saying the president cut $700 billion in Medicare to pay for his health care program.
But the plans Ryan produced in Congress in the last two years retain those cuts and call for repealing Obama's program. Romney's staff says he wants to restore the $700 billion.