ALONG FLORIDA'S I-4 CORRIDOR -- 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.
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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."
Hoping for a comeback
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 hardworking, 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 voucherlike 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.
Obama's health care plan actually improves some Medicare benefits. It's begun closing the coverage gap in the prescription drug program, known as the doughnut hole.
At times, Republicans have offered mixed messages about Florida's economy. While Romney has criticized the state's 8.6 percent unemployment rate (in June) and foreclosures, Gov. Rick Scott has boasted of a turnaround.
And there are signs of improvement.
Tourism and health care are driving the recovery, though the state has recovered only about 20 percent of nearly 925,000 jobs lost during the downturn, says Chris Lafakis, senior economist at Moody's Analytics.
The decline in construction jobs, long an economic mainstay here, hasn't bottomed out. And some jobs -- including those in the canceled U.S. space shuttle program closed last year -- are gone for good.
But Lafakis says about 75 percent of tourist-related jobs are back. Parking lots are crowded at Busch Gardens, Disney World, Universal Studios (home to a Harry Potter world) and other attractions along this road stretching from Tampa on the Gulf -- site of this month's Republican National Convention -- to Daytona Beach on the Atlantic side.
Still, there's a long way to go.
There are more than 371,000 open foreclosure files and more than half a million Florida mortgages are delinquent for 90 days or more, says Jack McCabe, an independent housing analyst. "You can make a case that we're just a third or halfway through the foreclosure crisis," he says.
McCabe says home prices are still down 35 percent to 55 percent across Florida. Growing numbers of foreign investors from places including Latin America and western Europe are gobbling up property.
And though unemployment is below the double-digit highs posted in 2010, a recent state report found nearly 70 percent of the decline from last December to this past May was because people had dropped out of the job market.
The jobless rate won't fall below 8 percent until the last quarter of 2014, according to a July report by Sean Snaith, director of the University of Central Florida's Institute for Economic Competitiveness.
This is uncharted territory.
"Florida always has been one of the first states out of the economic downturns," says MacManus, the USF political scientist. "We're not only lagging behind but we're among the slower states to recover. It's a situation Floridians just find unacceptable. We've always been ahead of the curve, not behind."
In the past, Florida depended on a "one, two punch" to escape recession -- population growth and construction. "This time we didn't get either to claw our way out of this particular hole," Snaith says.
During the boom of 2004-05, for example, net migration -- those moving in minus those leaving -- was 352,000. By 2008-09, it was just 15,000, according to the University of Florida bureau of economic and business research. As for housing, Snaith says: "We have more rooftops than people to put under them."
Snaith says population growth is gradually recovering and should pick up, but for now, the economy seems frozen.
"I think the presidential election is sort of keeping people standing still," Snaith says. "We're at the fork in the road and each candidate represents a path. Unless business knows what road we're on, it's just a waiting game."
There are, of course, exceptions -- new entrepreneurs along I-4.
A turnaround for some
Walt Mazie knows it was risky launching a business during hard times.
He and his wife, Nicole, left solid jobs and on July 4, 2010, opened a small place in Flagler Beach, on Florida's northeast Atlantic Coast, selling snowballs, iced treats. That blossomed into the Big Easy Cafe, which serves Cajun food in the tradition of New Orleans, Nicole's hometown.
Business was so dismal at first that on some Friday nights, Walt Mazie says, they sat outside because there were no customers. After about a year, his wife was so frustrated and upset, "I said, 'Tomorrow after we close up, leave the keys on the table and we'll never go back. I'm willing,'" Mazie recalls.
They held on, though, and about six months ago, there was a turnaround.
Mazie says business has increased about 65 percent over last year, thanks to positive publicity and an improved economy, Competition is arriving with two restaurants going up within a block but Mazie sees it as a sign of a broader recovery.
"I really do think things are going in the right direction," he says.
They are, too, about 70 miles away in Orlando for Leigh Ann Horton and her husband, Vince, owners of AIT Life Safety, a commercial fire alarms, sprinkler and safety systems company they purchased nearly three years ago.
"Last year, I was still saying, 'Are we going to survive?'" Leigh Ann Horton recalls. "'Should we have even bought this thing?'"
They trimmed their payroll, assembled a new management team and in January, she says, the economy edged up slightly and their efforts began to pay off. Business has increased 20 percent in the last year and they've added workers and are so busy they've passed up placing bids on some projects.
"I don't come into work and wonder if I'm going to meet payroll next week," she says. "There's a much different feeling. Just a little bit more at peace."
Eve and Michael Dobbins long for that day.
In April, they opened Cupcake Cache (Michael Dobbins was on an Army culinary team), selling 37 varieties in a tidy shop in the shadow of Busch Gardens. Money is so tight for the couple -- they wear matching Mrs. Boss and Mr. Boss knit shirts -- that he sold his golf clubs.
"We create a delicacy -- if they've got $3 in their wallet, they might not be thinking cupcakes, they might be thinking a gallon of gas," he acknowledges.
Eve Dobbins, who just returned from a year's teaching gig in Abu Dhabi (both husband and wife have master's degrees), has teacher friends around the country and "all of us are struggling in our own ways," she says. "That says a lot."
She recently took a college teaching job to supplement their income from the shop, but both Dobbinses are convinced that with leases so cheap, they made the right move.
"I'm glad we did it," Michael Dobbins says. "I don't think there will be a better time than now."
With 2½ months before the election, Michael Dobbins is a rare breed -- an undecided voter.
"Romney's only interested in big business," Dobbins says. "Obama wants the government in your business. It's going to make it difficult to vote at all."
But up and down I-4, the political lines are being defined,
There's Leigh Ann Horton, president of her security firm.
"I think we need a change," she says. "I'm super-hopeful things will change. It's not that we won't recover, but I think if the Republicans are elected, it will come faster ... I don't think the current administration has done a bunch for small businesses."
And there's Travis Joyner, a shop steward for Unite HERE! Local 362 who works at the Animal Kingdom Disney park. He likes Obama's job proposal and health plan and sees Romney's economic ideas as a dangerous retread.
"His mentality is, 'I'm going to take care of the rich people ... and once we do that, it's all trickle down,'" Joyner says. "But we've been there, done that and we've failed."
Still, Joyner is optimistic about a recovery.
"We've gone through tough times in our lives, and as a country," he says. "We're going to come out of this one way or another. The only question is will it be quick enough?"