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Ottumwa, center of the universe

But a tightening Democratic race means that Florida's primary on March 9 could still matter

ADAM C. SMITH
Published January 18, 2004

DES MOINES, Iowa - It's a balmy 30 degrees here and the options for political junkies are tremendous.

John Edwards in Indianola? John Kerry in Coralville? Howard Dean in Fort Dodge? Dick Gephardt in Council Bluffs?

Alas, as Iowa gears up for Monday's caucuses, most people doubt Florida will see much attention this primary season. The state that decided the 2000 election has been relegated to the sidelines while Democrats in places like Ottumwa, Iowa, and Moncks Corner, S.C., decide who should take on George Bush in November.

By the time Florida holds its primary March 9, 29 other states will have weighed in on the nomination and roughly two-thirds of the 2,158 delegates required for the Democratic nomination will have been divvied up. Most campaigns are betting the contest will be decided by "Super Tuesday" - March 2, when 10 states vote, including New York, California and Ohio.

But wait.

Maybe it's my bias in favor of an exciting and tight campaign, but Florida's shot at primary relevance appears a lot stronger today than it did even a week ago.

With Iowa looking more and more like an unpredictable four-person race and Gen. Wesley Clark of Arkansas steadily rising in New Hampshire and other early voting states, front-runner Howard Dean no longer appears to have the lock on the nomination all the magazine covers implied.

One can see any number of scenarios for mixed outcomes in the host of February primary contests that would leave the race unsettled by March 9. The eight-candidate field will shrink as candidates run out of money and options, but Dean could well be fighting off one or two serious challengers into March.

"It could be over Feb. 10, or it could go all the way (into the summer) if the party establishment all coalesces around whoever the other guy is," Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi said.

In South Florida, Clark's Florida campaign chairman Charles Dusseau is busily organizing for the significant contest he expects March 9.

"All my actions are based on the assumption there will still be a race. We're organizing county by county," he said. "As opposed to one month ago, it's pretty clear that the nomination is much more up for grabs than the talking heads had been saying."

Such optimism is common among rival Democrats striving to emerge as the anti-Dean.

"I submit to you that if it's indecisive on March 2, you're going to see this go all the way to Pennsylvania," said Fort Lauderdale lawyer Mitchell Berger, a top national fundraiser for Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, referring to the Keystone State's April 27 primary.

Enough governors with extensive fundraising networks are still sitting on the sidelines, Berger said, that a competitor may well wind up with a money infusion to compete with Dean's flush campaign account.

But all that depends on Dean losing his momentum in Iowa, New Hampshire and when the race moves to South Carolina and several other states Feb. 3.

National party leaders were so determined to get an early nominee so Democrats could quickly unite and raise money to take on George Bush, they left little breathing room after New Hampshire's Jan. 27 primary.

A slew of states eager to have more say in the nominating process moved their primary dates up, and the new front-loaded schedule leaves little opportunity for candidates without loads of money to keep trudging forward.

Democratic state lawmakers made some noise about moving Florida's election date sooner (with an eye toward helping then-presidential candidate Bob Graham), but the effort never went anywhere in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Come 2008, both parties may be clamoring for more early political attention and reschedule Florida's second-Tuesday-in-March primary. In the meantime, Dean's showing in Iowa Monday could go a long way to determining whether Florida has some influence on the Democratic nomination.

If that influence doesn't materialize, don't fret. The country's biggest swing state will get plenty of attention in the general election.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727 893-8241 or adam@sptimes.com

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