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Democrats galvanized by new possibilities

Iowa caucuses' results revitalize candidates' hopes and suggest Florida's primary may be crucial.

By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
Published January 23, 2004

After weeks of little action, Tampa lawyer Chris Griffin rekindled fundraising efforts for John Kerry this week following the Massachusetts senator's surprising victory in the Iowa caucuses.

In Pensacola, lawyer Fred Levin is pulling out his Rolodex to dial for dollars for North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who finished second in Iowa.

A newly scrambled presidential race has prominent Florida Democratic fundraisers jumping back into action for their candidates.

"For the first time, I'm getting as excited about the Democratic presidential race as I am for the Super Bowl coming up," Levin crowed. "Before, I just thought Howard Dean was the nominee."

Miami attorney Ira Leesfield has been steadily raising money for retired Gen. Wesley Clark of Arkansas, who skipped Monday's caucuses. He said the strong showings by Kerry and Edwards in Iowa indicate voters like mainstream candidates, and he said that Clark offers both moderate views and charisma.

But with Kerry and Edwards gaining momentum after their surprising finishes in Iowa, their Florida backers also have something to sell again: potential winners.

"Obviously, success breeds success," said Griffin, a regional chairman for Al Gore's 2000 Florida campaign and a Kerry supporter. "We've got a lot of momentum, so we're revving back up."

Some prominent backers of Dean, the former Vermont governor who had been the front-runner but finished a distant third in Iowa, were less upbeat.

Lobbyist and former legislator Mike Abrams of North Miami Beach, like many Florida Democrats, had backed Sen. Bob Graham for president. After Graham dropped out of the race, Abrams settled on Dean.

"I get on board, and he goes into the (toilet)," Abrams lamented with a chuckle Thursday before dismissing a question about raising money for Dean. "Nobody's going to give money to the campaign now, not until they see the results in New Hampshire."

Before Iowa, there had been widespread speculation that Dean could be the presumptive nominee no later than March 2, when California, Texas and 11 other states hold primaries or caucuses. Now Florida Democrats are speculating about a competitive March 9 presidential primary in Florida where Dean would not be in the mix.

While the nominee still could be determined by early March, there is the possibility that several candidates could split earlier primary contests and Florida could become pivotal.

Before the Iowa caucuses, Graham doubted Florida would matter in the primary. Now, he said, there is nearly an even chance it will be important.

Graham, a potential vice presidential candidate who has not ruled out endorsing a candidate before the Florida primary, has been complimentary of Dean. But this week he questioned whether Dean's "screaming presentation" during his Iowa concession speech Monday would be too problematic to overcome.

Lobbyist Ron Book, a prominent Dean backer, dismissed the controversy over the former Vermont governor's speech.

"A coach goes in at halftime and rallies his players when they're down," he said.

But Book acknowledged many Democratic donors in Florida will sit on their wallets until they see how the race shakes out after next week's New Hampshire primary and other contests on Feb. 3.

With its late primary, Florida has received little attention from the Democratic contenders besides quick fundraising trips. Kerry, Dean, Clark and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman have professional fundraisers based in Florida, but none of the candidates have paid campaign organizations in place.

An early December St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald poll showed Lieberman, Clark and Dean virtually tied for first place among Florida Democrats. Nearly one in three voters were undecided.

"It's wide open," Florida Democratic Party Chairman Scott Maddox said. "Any one of these candidates could win Florida."

Edwards and Kerry have strong fundraising networks throughout the state. Lieberman also has an extensive network of Florida supporters, but his prospects look increasingly dim as he lags in the polls in New Hampshire and most other states. Dean and Clark have the strongest grass roots organizations in Florida.

"In one way, the Florida organization is motivated more," said Patrick Cannon, an activist for Dean in Tampa. "There was this overconfidence that Florida wouldn't matter in the primary, and now there's a realization that we can really make a difference."

Should the nomination still be up for grabs March 9, one factor could give Dean or Kerry a decisive advantage: money. All of the candidates except Dean and Kerry are accepting federal matching money under the public campaign finance system. They can spend no more than about $45-million over the course of the primary.

By some projections, candidates could hit that cap by March if they run aggressive campaigns through the slew of contests in February. In a state as big as Florida, expensive TV ads are critical for running statewide campaigns.

"By the time March comes around, you've got to wonder where Clark will be with respect to (the spending caps)," said former Florida Democratic Party Chairman Bob Poe, who is uncommitted in the race. "The same holds true for Edwards."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727893-8241 or adam@sptimes.com

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