COURTESY of The Miami Herald
THE VILLAGES -- ''It's a beautiful day in The Villages,'' the decidedly chipper receptionists tell callers to Florida's fastest-growing retirement community, no matter the forecast.
For Republican candidates, the sloganeering rings true. In the Central Florida development that sprawls over three counties and two Zip Codes, Republican voters outnumber Democrats roughly 2-1. Turnout in Sumter County, where the bulk of the community lives, was among the highest in the state in the 2004 presidential election.
''It's safe to say that the road to the White House is through Florida, and the road to Florida is through The Villages,'' said Richard Cole, president of the largest of the community's four Republican clubs. ``We're a substantial political force.''
No wonder GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney picked the community to make his Florida debut back in February. With an eye on Florida's Jan. 29 presidential primary, he plans to return Wednesday with country singer Lee Greenwood, whose hit God Bless the USA increases the likelihood of a red-state, red-meat crowd.
Romney's trip will come less than a week after rival Fred Thompson made his own pilgrimage during his first Florida campaign swing. Hundreds endured the swampy September heat to see the former U.S. senator from Tennessee and Law & Order star, who made The Villages one of the stops on his three-day, eight-city Florida campaign tour.
George W. Bush was the first sitting president to visit in 2004, and Gov. Charlie Crist has visited regularly as a candidate and as governor.
ENTRY TO POLITICS
It was former Gov. Jeb Bush who put The Villages on the political map. He saw that one of the fastest-growing developments in the nation would be a treasure trove of votes, not to mention campaign cash. Developer Gary Morse was one of the top donors to Bush and his brother's presidential campaign, and he gave $500,000 -- the single largest donation -- to the Republican Party of Florida last year.
''Jeb would go into the elementary schools and stop at the corner cafe and have lunch, and it was like Sumter County was finally noticed,'' said the county's elections supervisor, Karen Krauss. ``It became the need-to-go-here place. It's still a little surprising to see presidential candidates coming through little old Sumter County.''
The development sprouted from a mobile home park surrounded by pasture, doubling in population in just a few years to 65,000, about twice the size of Aventura. The nearest airport in tiny Leesburg boasts a U.S Customs Office, allowing international home buyers and business clients to fly in directly.
Visitors know they are getting close when they come upon golf-cart retailers that resemble South Florida's banner-draped car dealerships. Most residents motor around in the carts, which merit special parking spaces at the nearby Wal-Mart. The community has a train-set perfection, with grass that looks more sculpted and carved than mowed and weed-whacked.
It's a grown-up Disney World without the kids, from the faux Key West-style town square to an ersatz freshwater spring, and enough older-adult diversions to rival the Magic Kingdom. Some buildings, younger than the residents, boast fake historical markers, leading some to quip that The Villages' future defines its past. The community's image is controlled by its own newspaper, television station and spot on the radio dial, housed in a quaint storefront cosmetically aged to resemble an old-time bait shop.
In many ways, The Villages is an oversized, overprogrammed version of South Florida's retirement meccas, where the heavily Democratic populace pines for the days of FDR and Harry Truman. For decades, presidential contenders have trekked to the fabled Century Village developments of Broward and Palm Beach Counties.
About 250 miles northwest, The Villages boasts bigger homes and younger residents who worship Ronald Reagan and command enough purchasing power to rate their own weather forecast on the evening news, provoking some resentment in the trailer parks to the south in blue-collar Lady Lake.
The cluster of Republican voters in The Villages is no accident. While South Florida draws liberal-leaning Northeasterners via Interstate 95, The Villages is just a little ways off Interstate 75, which winds through the nation's conservative Midwest.
LOUD AND PROUD
Illustrating the chasm between The Villages and those other ''villages'' down south, Romney's one-liner referring to the former first lady's failed universal healthcare plan -- ''I don't want Hillarycare!'' -- drew hoots and hollers from the standing-room-only crowd.
But when Hillary Clinton hosted a forum last week at Century Village in Boca Raton, she drew cheers when she referenced her universal healthcare plan. ''I tried this in 1993 and 1994, and I know how powerful the insurance companies are,'' she said, as the crowd nodded knowingly.
The crowds at The Villages don't just nod. They holler. They ''amen'' and wear spangled shirts. Many see themselves as a 55-and-older line of defense against an America overrun by immigrants, free-spending Washington insiders and abortion-loving liberals.
During Thompson's speech, one woman, beet-red from the heat, scrounged up some ice to cool her face before cheering wildly at his imprecations against government spending.
''I'm most concerned about securing our borders and keeping us safe,'' another Thompson fan, 73-year-old Michael Lethbridge, said with The Villages' trademark friendliness. "Here, we've got golf courses and pools and seem to be insulated. But we're really just like everybody else. This is America.''