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Primary fallout

Politics | The Democrats' hard line against Florida could soften the party in '08

Issue: "A mighty fortress is our sect," Oct. 20, 2007

When members of the Republican Party of Florida gather at the posh Shingle Creek Resort in Orlando this month, high-profile presidential candidates will headline the two-day event: The slate includes Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney, and John McCain.

A week later, when members of the Democratic Party of Florida gather for their annual convention at Disney's Yacht and Beach Club in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., all the major Democratic presidential candidates will be conspicuously absent. Instead, the biggest draw of the weekend will likely be the 1970s rock band Orleans.

Such is the state of politics in the state of Florida: A showdown over primary dates has left Democrats abandoning the Florida campaign trail, and Republicans capitalizing on their absence. The political upheaval in the notorious swing state could have major implications for who wins the presidential nominations next fall, and who wins the presidency next November.

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When Florida's state legislature voted to move up the state's primary to Jan. 29, 2008, the national parties balked, saying the early date violated party rules. (Both national parties have rules restricting most states from holding primaries before Feb. 5, but at least four other states are holding early primaries as well.)

The Republican National Committee (RNC) announced it would strip states violating the rules of half their nominating delegates at the party's national convention next year. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) was more severe: The party announced it would strip violating states of all their delegates at the convention next fall.

For Florida, that's a huge blow: With 210 nominating delegates, the state's Democratic Party has the fourth-largest number of delegates in the nation. When the DNC stripped the state's party of its delegates, Democratic presidential candidates decided to shun Florida as well: Nearly every Democratic candidate signed a pledge not to campaign in the state ahead of the primaries, saying Florida should follow party rules. The pledge contained one exception: private fundraisers.

Florida Democrats aren't budging, and insist they ought to be heard early in the primary process: The state's party officials point to Florida's large number of nominating delegates and the state's importance in general elections. They also say Florida's diverse population offers a better representation of more voters than the more homogenous populations in early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

State officials also insist that the DNC's actions won't squelch Florida's influence, saying they will ultimately retain their seats at the convention. To that end, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, both Democrats, recently filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing that the DNC's sanctions against Florida violate the U.S. Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act.

But even if the controversy in Florida doesn't ultimately affect the outcome of who wins the Democratic nomination, it could affect the strength of the Democratic Party at a crucial moment before the general election.

Sharon Stroschein, a member of the DNC rules committee that voted to strip Florida's delegates, acknowledged the possible fracture: "The last thing we want is Democrats not all coming together to elect our Democratic president," she told the St. Petersburg Times. "But somebody has to crack the whip."

Other Democrats are concerned about the controversy's effect on the general election. With 27 electoral votes, Florida has the fourth-largest number of electoral votes in the nation, making it a critical state to capture in general elections.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) lamented the DNC's sanctions against Florida and the Democratic candidates' decision to ignore the swing state before the primaries. "This is the classic definition of cutting your nose off to spite your face," she said. "Yes, there are maps showing you can win the presidency without Florida, but why would you want to start out that way?"

Republicans candidates aren't starting out that way. Despite the RNC's decision to strip Florida Republicans of half their voting delegates, Republican presidential candidates are campaigning heavily in the state, and taking advantage of the Democrat-free zone.

Scott Maddox, a former chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, told The Herald Tribune that the Republican candidates' strategy was wiser than that of Democrats: "They've handled it so much better."

Last month, Florida's GOP sent mailers to Democratic voters, asking: "Has being a Florida Democrat brought you to tears? You're not alone." The mailing included a voter registration form for Democrats to switch their party affiliation. State GOP officials say they will keep reminding Democratic and independent voters that Democratic presidential candidates boycotted the state, except when raising funds.

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