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Democrats continue to step up their presence in the Sunshine State this week, zeroing in on vast Central Florida where embattled Rep. Tom Feeney (R) faces a well-funded challenger, a more-than-likely influx of outside cash and his own political skeletons.

Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) campaign announced on Monday that the presidential nominee will appear at a midweek rally in the Tampa area, part of a larger effort to target the Sunshine State on Election Day and perhaps mine Democratic opportunities there.

Also, according to the Obama campaign, Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, wife of vice presidential nominee Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), head north next weekend to Tallahassee, the college-student-heavy state capital.

Meanwhile, as the Obama camp tests its footing in Florida this week, Feeney undoubtedly is sweating a recent Democratic poll showing the lawmaker now running neck-and-neck with EMILY’s List candidate and former state Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D) in the Orlando-area district, where Feeney has faced only token opposition in three elections and President Bush won twice by 6 percentage points or more.

In the previous cycle, Feeney soundly defeated computer programmer Clint Curtis (D), 58 percent to 42 percent.

In the Hamilton Campaigns survey released last Wednesday, Feeney led Kosmas 43 percent to 42 percent — well within the 4.9-point margin of error. The poll, conducted Sept. 11-14, interviewed 400 likely general election voters.

But perhaps more troubling for Feeney’s campaign: high negatives and little cash to fight back.

According to the new survey, only 37 percent of the likely voters surveyed had a positive impression of the lawmaker, a tough metric to flip with scant cash and little hope of relief from National Republican Congressional Committee.

As of Aug. 6, Kosmas had $836,000 in the bank. Feeney had roughly half left of what he’s raised all cycle: $804,000.

“Tom Feeney is one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the U.S. Congress,” according to the Sept. 17 memo by Kosmas’ pollster. “Feeney’s image is weak and voters view him more negatively than in May.”

One reason perhaps for Feeney’s fundraising woes and his shaky standing with district voters is a now-infamous Scotland golf trip in 2003 the lawmaker took with incarcerated GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Feeney, who is under investigation by the Justice Department, has paid three law firms more than $90,000 this cycle in undisclosed legal fees.

But in an interview with Roll Call late last week, Feeney said that when it comes to politics, time heals all wounds. Even though the FBI investigation is ongoing, Feeney cast doubt that the 2003 trip still carried much weight with voters. The lawmaker, who declined to discuss his investigation other than to say “we’re going to be fine,” also likened his current situation with the revived reputation of now-presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who weathered serious allegations in the “Keating Five” case following the savings and loan collapse nearly two decades ago.

“If [my political opponents are] going to talk about a five-year-old event, that’s not all that bad,” Feeney said. “John McCain’s the biggest reformer up here and 15 years ago he had problems.”

Despite predicting that central Florida voters will have short memories when they close the voting booth curtain, Feeney acknowledged that his race “is going to be close.” And Feeney is sufficiently worried about the Abramoff connection that he went up with an ad Monday night apologizing to voters.

Still, he said the top of the ticket should make up the difference in his district, which was created after the 2000 Census, predicting a strong showing by McCain and his vice presidential candidate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R).

“It is a tough climate, but it’s better than 2006,” Feeney said. “Sarah Palin does nothing but help me in the district. Palin makes sure that social conservatives come out to vote, the ones that maybe weren’t thrilled with McCain.”

Dave Beattie, Kosmas’ pollster, said Feeney is making a crucial error by banking on the presidential matchup to push him over the edge in 2008, claiming that the incumbent starts off with a “pre-existing condition.”

Beattie also predicted a massive turnout in the district by voters who likely do not have “a lot of connection to someone who’s an incumbent.”

“There are not many Members of Congress who are under a current FBI investigation — that is an existing image of Feeney,” Beattie said. “There aren’t a lot of incumbents who start with the negatives he has.”

“He will need to tell his side of the story and he can’t just sit back and let partisanship hand this one to him,” Beattie added.

Feeney said that how and when he decides to start telling his side of the story in television ads remains to be seen. For now, the lawmaker said his campaign is saving its cash to counter an expected late-cycle deluge by outside groups. Feeney also confirmed that he backed out of a television ad buy last week because “Palin bought us a nice bounce.”

“We didn’t feel like we had to go up quite as early because Republicans were really starting to get locked in,” Feeney said. “One of our concerns is that we expect to be outspent … EMILY’s List and other left-wing groups will target this race.”

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