Tampa (written by Aamer Madhani/USA Today) -- The battle for Florida and its 29 electoral votes is being fought by folks such as Matt Bellina and Ferguson Yacyshyn.
Here in Hillsborough County, a politically bifurcated swath of Florida that's been won by the eventual presidential winner in every contest but one since 1960, volunteers such as Bellina, 22, who backs Mitt Romney, and Yacyshyn, 21, who supports President Obama, are among the campaigns' soldiers doing the gritty work of getting out the vote.
They're the door-knockers and cold callers that both Obama's and Romney's campaign aides point to as the reason why their man will win the Sunshine State, the biggest prize in terms of electoral votes among the swing states. And as polls show Romney and Obama knotted closely, both sides say it's their ground games that are going to make the difference.
Within this battleground state, perhaps no area is being fought over with the gusto that both sides have put into winning Hillsborough County, an area that Obama won by 2.4 percentage points in 2008, mirroring his slim margin of victory in the state.
"Tampa is the dead set center ground zero" of the campaign, said Rahm Emanuel, Obama's former chief of staff and the current mayor of Chicago, who was dispatched by the campaign to Florida on Saturday to fire up volunteers. "You think you've knocked on your last door? You got 10 more. You think you've made your last phone call? You've got 10 more. Never give in. Never give up."
The stakes are well understood by Bellina and Yacyshyn.
On Saturday afternoon, Bellina, a University of South Florida student, was pounding the pavement in south Tampa on behalf of Romney.
Along with 12 fraternity brothers he recruited to volunteer for the day, Bellina would spend the afternoon knocking on doors in a leafy, well-heeled south Tampa neighborhood.
Bellina, who has already volunteered more than 400 hours to the Romney campaign, and his buddies from Kappa Sigma were to check in with voters that the Romney campaign had identified as leaning their way as well as with precious undecided voters, a species in the Florida electorate coveted by both sides.
He hit pay dirt when he knocked on the door of Debbi Buckenheimer. He wouldn't, however, get a definitive answer on this day.
"I'm still undecided," Buckenheimer said. "I thought I'd have a better idea after the first two debates, but I'm still not happy with what I've heard from either of them."
Bellina handed her some campaign literature, thanked her for her time, and marked her as "undecided" on his door-knock sheet. She'll almost certainly be hearing from the Romney campaign again in the coming days.
Just north of the city in the working-class suburb of Temple Terrace, Yacyshyn was sitting in a backroom of an Obama field office, on the phone.
Many of his fellow volunteers were out knocking on doors, but Yacyshyn, who is using crutches after injuring himself in a recent bicycle accident, hung back to hit the phones. His task for much of the afternoon was to dial hundreds of area residents who had previously identified themselves as Obama supporters and ask them whether they'd be willing to lend a few hours to volunteer.
Team Obama has long boasted of having a better ground game in the state. They've opened 103 field offices throughout Florida (compared with 47 by the Romney campaign) and say that 20,000 supporters completed the extensive voter-registration training required before volunteers were allowed to register voters.
But even with that army of volunteers, they aren't done recruiting, and Yacyshyn spent a good chunk of his Saturday on the phone doing his part to make certain that the Temple Terrace field office will be able to flood the area with canvassers and man its phone banking operations in the final days of the campaign.
His task is tedious, but Yacyshyn said he doesn't mind. In fact, he said he feels obligated to do his part.
Yacyshyn, who has volunteered more than 200 hours to the campaign, explains that he has relied on government loans and grants while working two jobs to pay his way through the University of South Florida. He notes that Obama has championed government loan programs and Pell Grants for students, while Romney has questioned government education spending and suggested he would "refocus" grant spending.
"Without Pell Grants, I'd probably have to settle for community college," he said.
THE STATE OF THE RACE
Romney holds a 2.1-point lead over Obama in the state, according to an average of polls by RealClearPolitics. While the lead is small, Romney has gained momentum in the state since his widely perceived victory over Obama in the first presidential debate in Denver earlier this month.
For Romney, the path to 270 electoral votes - the magic number to win the presidency - is difficult to reach without Florida. For Obama, who has more paths to victory, he could lose the state but still win the election.
Yet, neither side is showing any signs of letting up.
Both GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan and Vice President Biden crisscrossed the state late last week. And Romney, who has held 74 events in the state since he launched his presidential campaign, joined Ryan for a big outdoor rally on Friday night in Daytona Beach.
It was the former Massachusetts governor's last scheduled campaign appearance before Monday night's third and final presidential debate in Boca Raton. Obama is also scheduled to return for a campaign stop on Thursday back in Tampa.
THE SUPER BOWL OF POLITICS
Brett Doster, an adviser to the Romney campaign in Florida and a longtime political operative in the state, compared Florida to the "Super Bowl of politics." The state, which George W. Bush won by only 500 votes in 2000, is always fiercely competitive. More than 33 million ballots have been cast in presidential races in Florida since 1992, and the average separation between the two parties in each race has been about 60,000 votes.
"It's rare that someone wins the Super Bowl by three or four touchdowns," Doster said. "It's usually a good game. The race here is going to be close to the end."
Despite Romney's momentum in the polls in the state in recent weeks, the Obama campaign believes its ground game has already put it on the path to eke out a win in what will be a close contest.
At this point in the race in 2008, registered Republican voters in the state had requested nearly 250,000 mail-in ballots more than Democratic voters. On Oct. 16, the edge was only 61,000 for Republicans, noted Ashley Walker, the Obama for America state director for Florida.
Taking advantage of a wrinkle in voting rules, the Obama camp also launched an initiative calling on voters to request an absentee ballot in person from their local Supervisors of Elections and fill it out on the spot and return it before leaving the counter. The tactic effectively lengthens the period for early voting, which begins on Oct. 27 in the state.
Meanwhile, the Romney camp says their ground game has gained steam since the first presidential debate, in which Obama has since acknowledged that he delivered a subpar performance.
Just before the first debate, Doster, the Romney adviser, said the campaign was approaching 9 million voter contacts. After the debate, Romney volunteers made 2 million more phone or face-to-face contacts with Florida voters, he said.
"We're at the point where we're having to add capacity," Doster said. "We're having to purchase new phones and open new victory centers."
For Florida voters, all the attention is overwhelming. More than $137 million has already been spent on advertising by both campaigns and outside groups in the state, according to an analysis by National Journal. In addition, voters here say they're drowning in a tsunami of mailings from the campaigns.
"It's just too much," said Doris Guenther, 74, a South Florida resident who said she will vote for Romney.
Yet, despite the avalanche of information that has hit Florida voters from both sides, there are still plenty of undecided voters -- maybe between 7% and 9% of the state's electorate, Doster says.
"It's a late breaking state, people wait to the last days to harden their positions," said Doster, adding that a large segment of the state's retiree community leaves the state in the summer months and isn't fully engaged in the election until the final weeks of the campaign.
Blanche Turner, 74, who has been volunteering at phone banks for Obama since May, said that she's somewhat perplexed by the number of undecided voters she is still coming across in her calls. "How can you be about two weeks out, or whatever it is, and still be undecided?" she said.
Joni Dougerty, 39, whose been working phone banks for the Romney campaign further east in Kissimmee, agrees.
"I just hope they like the sound of my voice and throw their support to Romney," she said.