LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Clarito Macalalad knows what it's like to support a family of four on a $12.08-an-hour wage. But the cook at a Disneyworld restaurant suspects that the Republican presidential candidates — and Mitt Romney in particular — don't have any idea of what America's working poor are going through. And, partly for that reason, Macalalad says he'll probably vote for President Barack Obama in the fall.
"Romney, he's too rich," Macalalad, 38, said. "He wouldn't know what to do if he was poor."
For others, there's only one thing that matters as they weigh Romney's candidacy.
"He's not Obama," says Becky Niemczyk, 34, who works at a Christmas-themed shop in Downtown Disney and planned to back the former Massachusetts governor.
Despite Florida's wealthy beach resorts, expensive Disney vacations and swank Miami hotels, much of the state is populated by hard-working, blue-collar people who were hit hard during the recession and struggle daily.
The large working class in the populous area surrounding Interstate 4, which runs from Tampa on the Gulf Coast to Daytona Beach on the Atlantic and straight through the heart of Orlando's theme park zone, often holds the key to a candidate's success in both primary and general elections.
Over the next 10 months, Obama and the eventual Republican nominee will make countless visits to this area of a state suffering mightily from the slow economic recovery. The state has nearly 10 percent unemployment, some of the nation's highest foreclosure rates and skyrocketing property insurance costs, all of which are casting a pall over people as they decide who to support in Tuesday's Republican presidential primary and in the fall — if they vote at all.
"It's a lot of empty promises," groused Donna Bosse, 54, who works in a kiosk selling discount theme-park tickets in a strip mall just outside Disney's gates. She doesn't plan to vote, but she still has an opinion, saying: "It's going to take a lot more than one man to turn this economy around."
In a string of interviews, voters said they are taking into account their own dwindling finances as well as the overall dismal situation as they weigh who to support in a state that has become a critical battleground in every recent White House race.
Some are enthusiastic Obama supporters. Others are mad at the president for not fixing the economy but might vote for him anyway. Still others plan to cast a ballot for Romney because they think he's a good businessman. Few mentioned the other Republican candidates: Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum or Ron Paul. They see the general election as shaping up between Romney and Obama, largely because of the economy.
Polls show Romney with a comfortable lead over Gingrich, his chief challenger, ahead of Tuesday's primary, though there's no guarantee that Romney will end up clinching the nomination. Only four states have weighed in on the Republican nomination fight so far.
In both the primary and the general election, the economy and lack of well-paying jobs trumps all.
In this region, many of the jobs are low-wage. For instance, the average housekeeper makes between $8 and $10 an hour, according to UNITE HERE, a union that represents some 13,000 hospitality workers at Disney and other companies.
"Sometimes people take two or three jobs to make it," said Virginia Cruz, a housekeeper at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge.
After 15 years with the company, she said she makes $13.18 an hour and that it's difficult to pay the $30 a week needed for health insurance, which is up from $2.95 a week when she first started.
The Republicans, she said, are ignoring the working class and she plans to vote for Obama, saying: "We need better hourly wages, better schools, better health insurance."
As for Obama's wealthy potential opponent, Cruz said of Romney: "He didn't earn nothing ... He was a businessman who owned a lot of companies. He earned it on the poor people that worked so hard for him."
It would be easy to classify all of central Florida's hospitality workers — the tens of thousands of people who clean the theme parks, make the hotel beds and ring up the tourist tchotchkes — as blue-collar Democrats who view Romney's wealth, estimated at between $190 million and $250 million, with suspicion. But it would be wrong.
Take Hamid Abdlouhed, a 38-year-old worker in a strip-mall tobacco shop.
"I like Mitt Romney," he said. "I like his economical skills as a businessman. I trust him more about how to solve the economy. He's been successful."
Abdlouhed respects Romney's argument that he's "earned" his wealth by working hard in a way that speaks to the American dream.1 comment on this story
He planned to vote for Romney on Tuesday.
But when it comes to the general election in November, he hasn't decided whether to back Obama like he did four years ago.
"Right now there's a 50-50 chance I will vote for Obama," Abdlouhed said, who, like so many others, cited the economy as his main concern.
Follow Tamara Lush on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tamaralush