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Dems' primary may not count
By ADAM C. SMITH
Published May 9, 2007
What if Democratic voters turned out for a presidential primary in Florida and their vote didn't count?
No, this isn't a Katherine Harris joke.
It's an option national Democratic leaders are seriously considering as they grapple with Florida's newly scheduled 2008 presidential primary date, which could upend the national primary process and produce yet another weird Florida election. Consider the scenario:
On Jan. 29, Florida Republicans and Democrats head to the polls to pick presidential nominees. Republican votes count, just as you would expect, but the results for Democrats would be nonbinding. No delegates would be awarded based upon the results and instead party activists and insiders would decide on some later date how to divvy up the state's more than 200 delegates to the Democratic national convention.
It's not so far-fetched.
"I think it's much higher than 50-50 that we will make Jan. 29 a nonbinding" election, said Jon Ausman, a veteran Democratic organizer in Tallahassee and member of the Democratic National Committee.
Florida Democratic chairwoman Karen Thurman and state executive director Leonard Joseph have been meeting with national party leaders this week to reach an agreement on how to deal with the Democratic National Committee penalties for violating the national party's scheduling rules.
"Possibilities include accepting the Jan. 29th date and the penalties that go along with it or holding a party-run caucus at a later date, " Thurman said in an e-mail to Democrats on Tuesday.
Exactly how a caucus would work is not yet clear, but a straw poll among gathered Democrats is likely to be the method of deciding how to parcel out delegates to candidates.
The confusion springs from the decision by Florida lawmakers to move the state's primary from March to January. The move scrambled the carefully arranged schedule that both national parties had laid out for the primaries, aimed at giving a more diverse group of states say in the early nominating process.
National Democrats have particularly strict penalties for violating the schedule they set. Now they are looking at imposing penalties, including forfeiting any nominating delegates from Florida, that have some in the party worried the Democratic presidential candidates might wind up all but ignoring Florida.
With a host of states, including giants such as California, New York and Texas, set to hold elections Feb. 5, why spend millions of dollars campaigning in a state with no delegates at stake?
"If I'm a presidential candidate, I've got to store my chestnuts for the 5th of February, and I'm better off saying, 'I'm not going to play in a state like Florida that's just a beauty contest. I'm better off having my momentum on Feb. 5 carry me on, ' " said Allan Katz, a Democratic fundraiser in Tallahassee and Barack Obama supporter.
Katz thinks Democrats should make the statewide election on Jan. 29 nonbinding, and then hold a party nominating convention later in February to award Florida's delegates.
But Chris Hand, a Jacksonville lawyer and former Democratic campaign strategist, questioned whether Democrats might hurt themselves in the long run by turning Jan. 29 into a "beauty contest."
"The danger is that every Republican candidate spends time here trying to win Florida, and the Democrats are noticeably absent, " said Hand, a former aide to Sen. Bob Graham, who managed Alex Sink's campaign for chief financial officer last year. "That doesn't play out well in the general election. I wouldn't want to be the Democratic presidential nominee who skipped Florida's primary."
Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson also questioned the wisdom of making the Jan. 29 Democratic primary nonbinding: "I support the Florida Legislature's effort to broaden the state's role in national elections. I don't see how making the Democratic primary nonbinding serves the interests of either voters or taxpayers, " he said.
Winning a presidential nomination is ultimately about winning delegates to the national convention. But winning an election counts for something, too.
"Even without the delegates attached, if you win the Florida primary, that's going to be a huge, " said Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, D-Weston. "I can't imagine the presidential candidates not crossing the Florida border for a Jan. 29 election as the result of some arcane party rules designed to protect states that are not as diverse as Florida."
But with so many big states holding elections so early, candidates can't afford full-bore campaigns everywhere. Some Democrats fear that doing anything to diminish the Jan. 29 Florida primary - either through the DNC yanking all delegates or an agreement to make it nonbinding - would encourage candidates to delay mounting a serious Florida campaign.
"The risk here is we put our Democratic candidates and our eventual nominee at a disadvantage in one of the most important states in the country, " said Democratic consultant Karl Koch of Tampa. "There's no good option, I just hope we keep our eye on the ball - which is November of '08."
Florida Democrats had no power to stop the early presidential primary date in the Republican-controlled Legislature and most supported the idea through most of the session.
Still, the Republican penalties for holding such an early primary are nowhere near as stiff as the Democratic penalties. Republican National Committee general chairman Mel Martinez, Florida's junior senator, has not voiced any complaint about Republican lawmakers violating RNC rules with an early presidential primary.
"I'm not so sure whether the Republicans did us a favor or whether they had something more Machiavellian in mind with this, " said Mitch Ceasar, Broward County's Democratic chairman. "We're in uncharted territory here, and people are very torn."