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McKinstry: Westchester can teach Republicans a thing or two

During the Republican National Convention in nearby Tampa,

During the Republican National Convention in nearby Tampa, Fla., Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, New York Republican Party chairman Edward Cox and Rep. Robert Turner of Queens speak to one another at the Hilton Clearwater Hotel. (Aug. 29, 2012) Photo Credit: Gerald McKinstry

TAMPA -- Mitt Romney could learn a few things from Republicans in Westchester County. So could President Barack Obama.

The "liberal-leaning" Westchester, as state GOP Party chairman Edward Cox put it during one of many get-togethers with state leaders this week, has something like a 2-to-1 Democratic registration advantage. Yet voters in 2009 elected a Republican in County Executive Rob Astorino anyway.

Cox, and others, credit that to the GOP's sticking with core principles like lowering property taxes. Democrats whisper that it had to do more with low voter turnout stemming from Spano fatigue, a reference to 12-year County Executive Andy Spano.

Any way you view it, getting out the vote is imperative, and it's as much about inspiring a base as it is articulating a vision and addressing problems with Medicare, taxes and the economy. Especially in this presidential race.

"It's when Republicans run from our philosophy of smaller government, less taxes and more individual liberties that we get in trouble," Astorino told me at the Republican National Convention, when I asked him how the GOP can win big races like the presidency. "We just have to explain who we are and why it's good to vote Republican, and not be afraid of that."

That's good advice for Romney. And for Obama, if he is to effectively battle Republicans emboldened by their convention.

If one-time long shot Astorino could beat a Democrat with a huge enrollment advantage, then Romney can make a run for the presidency, especially when you consider polls nationwide are all but tied.

That's another reminder that counties like Westchester shouldn't be written off or assumed to be a lock for Democrats in smaller local races.

At an event in Clearwater, where New York's large band of delegates is staying, one speaker estimated that Republicans need to pick off about 7 percent of people across the country who backed Obama in 2008.

More and more people, disillusioned by a partisan divide, have left the two major parties and opted for independence -- the so-called No Party group.

Those voters, who make up a growing percentage of the suburban vote, are up for grabs. In fact, at 24 million nationally and growing, independents are creeping up on Republicans, who have roughly 30 million registered voters across the country. Democrats, with 42 million registered voters, still hold a commanding lead.

Yet the Democratic and Republican parties are losing people fast: More than 2.5 million voters left the parties in the last four years, according to a USA Today analysis. It also found that the number of independent voters climbed in 18 states, while numbers dropped for Democrats in more than two dozen states and slightly fewer for Republicans.

The two major parties in the so-called swing states -- where so much time and money is being spent -- are losing people the fastest.

In Westchester, Astorino can't win in 2013 without the county's sizable independent vote, and that's a reason he doesn't stray from his basic philosophy of shrinking government and cutting taxes -- that's a platform many independents can get behind.

Republicans running for Congress are sure to follow that model. So will New York State Senate candidates fighting to keep majority control of their house in the legislature. And many of these races will be dogfights.

Despite conventional political wisdom, suburbs like Westchester shouldn't be presumed to be a gimme -- not yet.

Races will be competitive. This will be a battleground.

Gerald McKinstry is a member of the Newsday editorial board.