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Profile: Florida

Associated Press

Plenty has changed in Florida since the days of dimpled chads and disputed ballots, much of it in President George W. Bush's favour. Brother Jeb easily won re-election as governor in 2002, and the Republican Party has increased its numbers. The economy has shown signs of improvement, with nearly 300,000 new jobs.

But the race is as close as it was four years ago, when a mere 537 votes tipped the state and the presidency to Mr. Bush.

Since then, Florida has grown by more than 1 million -- Democratic-leaning Hispanics and blacks as well as conservative whites, drawn by the state's warm temperatures and booming suburbs.

"This may be the most dynamic state in all the 50," says Jeb Bush, who hopes to deliver it to his brother Nov. 2.

The state's 9.3 million registered voters are a microcosm of America -- black, white and brown; immigrants and Southern aristocracy; Panhandle conservatives, Miami-Dade County liberals and a growing number of independents; scores of voters driven by single issues such as Fidel Castro's rule in Cuba, Israel's security and even the disputed outcome of the 2000 presidential election.

They will determine whether Mr. Bush or Democrat John Kerry gets Florida 27 electoral votes, one-tenth of the total needed to win the White House. It's the largest prize of the battleground states, with each campaign spending more than $35-million (U.S.) in television commercials since March. Democratic-leaning outside groups have spent at least $8-million in Florida.

BY THE NUMBERS:

27 and 25 -- number of electoral votes now and 2000.

16.8 -- percent of population of Hispanic or Latino origin

537 -- vote margin of George Bush's victory in 2000

47 -- square miles of Walt Disney World, about twice the size of Manhattan

1,100 -- miles of sand beaches in the state

WHAT TO WATCH ON ELECTION NIGHT:

Florida's election system is under heavy scrutiny after the problems of 2000. Fifteen of the state's largest counties are using touchscreen technology, which seemed to work smoothly during the Aug. 31 primary.

A key battleground area is the Interstate 4 corridor from Tampa Bay on the Gulf of Mexico through Orlando to the Atlantic Coast city of Daytona Beach. The influx of Puerto Ricans and other non-Cuban Hispanics in central Florida is good news for Democrats. They largely supported Al Gore in 2000 and could offset the Cuban-American vote for President Bush in South Florida.

Florida has the nation's largest concentration of elderly voters.

Keep an eye on the high-profile U.S. Senate campaign. Betty Castor, former education commissioner and University of South Florida president, hopes to keep the seat in Democratic hands. She faces former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez, an immigrant from Cuba who will probably swell that part of the voting population.

IN FLORIDA FOUR YEARS AGO:

Who could forget?

After 36 days of wrangling, recounts and legal challenges, the U.S. Supreme Court declared Republican George W. Bush the winner over Democrat Al Gore by a margin of 537 votes out of more than 6 million cast.

The governor was, and is, Bush's younger brother, Jeb.

AP Correspondent Brent Kallestad in Tallahassee contributed to this report.

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