JIM LEHRER: Now, the next in our series on the presidential campaigns in battleground states.
Judy Woodruff spent last week in Florida, already one of the most familiar of all battlegrounds, where, as elsewhere, the economy has been hurting.
Tonight, in the first of three reports, Judy looks at how the economy could affect the way the state votes in November.
JUDY WOODRUFF: At Casavana, a new and noisy Cuban restaurant in South Miami, both Democratic and Republican diners sat raptly watching last Friday night’s debate, straining to hear, especially when the candidates spoke about the country’s financial crisis.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: It has to have accountability and oversight. It has to have options for loans to failing businesses, rather than the government taking over those loans.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: We’ve got to make sure that none of that money is going to pad CEO bank accounts or to promote golden parachutes.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Afterwards, supporters of both men said what they heard bolstered their opinion going in.
ROBERT FERNANDEZ, McCain Supporter: I’d really come supporting McCain and really with what he has to say.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And what did you hear in the debate that reinforced that view?
ROBERT FERNANDEZ: Well, his views on enriching the economy by cutting taxes for businesses and trying to, you know, spur growth through the businesses, it’s really where I think it can lead to greater benefits for the economy.
ROSANNA FORTEZA, Obama Supporter: I see in Obama some flexibility of mind that can understand complex problems and adapt to what is going on and make, you know, good, common sense, and be pragmatic about problems.
Florida's housing crisis
JUDY WOODRUFF: No minds changed at Casavana that we could find, nor the next morning among tailgaters just before a University of Miami football game, but we did find anxiety.
SHANNON MURDOCK, College Student: I'll be honest with you. Like, I am very unsure with this economy. I'm a finance major. Currently what's happening in the financial markets is very serious to me, and that is going to play into my decision. I'm graduating in May, so I look to be getting a job.
JUDY WOODRUFF: This year, Obama's making the Sunshine State a top priority. An independent pollster, Jim Kane, who teaches at the University of Florida, says the top issue for voters here is the economy.
JIM KANE, Independent Pollster: We're one of three states that have been the hardest hit because of the housing crash, and that's truly what it is here.
I wish you could drive around with me and see in this South Florida area how many empty buildings that have been sold and nobody's living in them, three-quarters of which are in foreclosure, and it's only going to get worse.
The inventory of empty units in this county alone is incredible. It's thousands of units that just nobody can do anything with them. And you can't give it away.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Miami has been called Ground Zero in the nation's housing crisis, and you can see some of the symptoms scarring the city's skyline.
And the crisis has hit statewide: Florida ranks third in the nation in foreclosures.
University of Miami Professor Andrea Heuson says residents at all income levels have been hurt, especially those at the lower end of the scale.
ANDREA HEUSON, University of Miami: We have a huge service sector of minimum wage or slightly above minimum wage jobs because they support not only tourism, but also some of the other industries here, like health care.
And for those people, especially those who are in homes or new home purchasers, for those people, the downturn has obviously been very, very strong.
JUDY WOODRUFF: No place is that more clear than in central Florida, which has seen an influx of young, new families in recent years.
TAMMY GRAHAM, Realtor: You have to be on the phone every week with the banks and find out what the status is.
JUDY WOODRUFF: In Polk County, between Tampa and Orlando, realtor Tammy Graham used to match eager buyers up with $150,000 to $200,000 homes. But a little over a year ago, she began showing more homes like this one.
TAMMY GRAHAM: This is one of the many foreclosures or pre-foreclosures that I have on the market. It was previously owned by a single mom, and she got to the point where she really couldn't afford the mortgage anymore, so she's had to move out and move into an apartment.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Graham says hearing the stories of homeowners can be painful.
TAMMY GRAHAM: I'm dealing with people calling me and saying, "I've lost my job. My rate is about to adjust. My mortgage payment is going to go up $400 a month, and I can't afford it as it is."
And I've had people ask me, you know, "I'm having problems feeding my children. Should I stop paying my mortgage?" And that's a sad state of affairs.
Job seekers reconsider their vote
JUDY WOODRUFF: It's a state of affairs that has led Polk Works to have one of the busiest offices in town. Job-seekers come here to search databases for employment opportunities and to get help brushing up their resumes and preparing for interviews.
One of them is Laurie Phillips. Her job as a graphic artist at the local newspaper was outsourced, leaving her out of work after 29 years.
LAURIE PHILLIPS, Graphic Artist: There's no graphic arts design jobs out there. If you want to stay in the career I'm in, I'll have to go to Tampa or Orlando. So the commute will be more; the gas will be more.
JUDY WOODRUFF: A registered Republican who says she'll probably vote Democratic this year, Phillips says dipping into her savings just to get by has changed her attitude about the presidential election.
LAURIE PHILLIPS: I have to admit I really never paid attention to any of the campaigns before, so this year I've been watching the Republicans and the Democrats. So it's -- yes, it's going to make a big influence on me, how the economy is, how I vote.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Experts on Florida's business sector say there are plenty of bright spots around the state, including in the center, in the stretch of land along I-4, the interstate that runs between Orlando and Tampa.
Mark Howard is executive director of business magazine Florida Trend.
MARK HOWARD, Florida Trend Magazine: The whole I-4 corridor between Orlando and Tampa has become somewhat of a high-tech-oriented center. There's lot of medical manufacturing in the northern part of Pinellas County.
We have within Pinellas County what's now the largest investment bank in the country, Raymond James. There was just a release that came out this past week that, for the fourth year in a row, Florida had export growth in tech to the tune of $1 billion a year in the past year.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But to the southeast, in the agriculture-dependent tri-cities area -- also called the Glades -- what was already economically depressed is now even more so.
The city of Belle Glade likes to claim that its fortune lies in its soil. The locals call it "muck city" after the black earth in which the area's main crop, sugar, is grown.
But much of this sugar cane will disappear, after the state agreed to buy 300 square miles of farmland as part of a project aimed at restoring the Everglades.
Towns that already show the signs of long-term economic blight are now bracing themselves for further job losses and economic dislocation.
The former mayor of Pahokee, Fla., J.P. Sasser, works at a body shop and reports a number of people who rent property from him are behind with their payments.
J.P. SASSER, Former Mayor, Pahokee, Fla.: They've either lost their job or a member of their family has lost their job. And the safety net, so to speak, too, is not there like it used to be. It used to -- if you lost your job, you could go out and quickly find another one. And that's not the case.
Also, the real thing that's hurting us here is we're really only about 40, 45 minutes from the east coast, West Palm Beach. That was great when gasoline was cheap. At $4 a gallon, it's costing people money to drive over to the coast.
And when you're talking about very -- just low-based labor rates, when you're only making $10, $12 an hour, $8 to $10, $12 an hour, you can't afford to drive, and that's where it's really hurting us.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Sasser says he was a lifelong Republican, but no longer.
J.P. SASSER: I just don't see how anybody in their right mind would put another Republican in the White House.
JUDY WOODRUFF: He sees a huge voter turnout ahead benefiting Barack Obama.
J.P. SASSER: Even though everybody's saying he doesn't have any experience, look at all that experience that's in Washington now that got us where we are.
And I think, as the economy worsens on a daily basis, every time you open the paper in the morning, and you -- I think Wall Street is going to elect Obama president. I mean, he couldn't have asked for better timing.
JUDY WOODRUFF: If Obama is going to be advantaged, it hasn't shown up yet in the polls. More voters here do say Obama is better able to improve the economy. And by 3-to-1, Florida voters say the economy is their main concern.
But overall, Obama runs even or just behind John McCain.
MARK HOWARD: I think people are still looking for, which candidate is going to step up with something that they feel is a better approach or a better response to economic conditions?
I don't think that there's a -- so far that -- to whatever degree people of Florida believe that the current administration caused this, that they blame John McCain for it, as well.
JUDY WOODRUFF: That they don't, is that what you're saying?
MARK HOWARD: Yes, that they don't necessarily see John McCain as responsible for it.
JUDY WOODRUFF: If so, it's not because Obama hasn't tried to make the connection.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: As difficult as change may be, as risky as it may seem to be hiring somebody new to help lead this country, that the biggest risk is doing the same things we've been doing over and over again and somehow expecting a different result. We can't afford four more years of the same policies that have gotten us in this mess.
Driving people to the polls
JUDY WOODRUFF: McCain, meanwhile, is working just as hard to distance himself from the Bush administration and the housing and financial debacle.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: Two years ago, I warned the administration and the Congress that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac needed to be fixed, and it turns out the problem was even bigger. They waited too long, and now we have a housing crisis, three bailouts with taxpayers' money, and a financial crisis.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The candidates have five more weeks to make their case. Pollster Jim Kane thinks Obama has the edge.
JIM KANE, Independent Pollster: What's happened in the last few days, in the last week, regarding Wall Street and the financial meltdown, that's only going to make it worse and it's going to make the voters far more nervous. And that's going to drive more people to the polls, in my opinion.
And at this point, I'd have to say, if I had a crystal ball, I would have to say that Democrats will benefit from that more than the Republicans.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The McCain campaign and Florida Republicans, who have pulled off two wins in the last two elections, are working to make sure Kane's forecast never comes true.
JIM LEHRER: Judy's next report is about new voters, registering them and getting them to the polls. On our Web site, Judy is taking questions in a live chat tomorrow from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. Eastern time.
You can also explore our election map and find stories from local Florida television stations about the campaign. As always, just go to PBS.org and then scroll down to NewsHour Reports.