Democratic primary: binding or not?

Published May 24, 2007

Howard Dean isn't getting much help from Florida's top elected Democrats as he tries to convince the state to back off plans to hold one of the country's earliest presidential primaries.

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink on Wednesday said she opposes a plan to make Florida's Jan. 29 Democratic primary nonbinding and officially meaningless. Sen. Bill Nelson also opposes that idea.

"If people take the trouble to express their opinions and everyday Florida Democrats take the trouble to go to the polls, they ought to have some assurance that their voices will be heard and taken into account and the results will mean something, " said Sink, the only Democrat on Florida's Cabinet.

The state and national parties have been in intense discussions since Florida lawmakers, determined to give the state more influence in the presidential nominating process, moved Florida's primary from March to January. Both parties had set schedules that barred all but a select few states from scheduling primaries before Feb. 5 and imposed penalties for states that violated those schedules.

The Democrats' penalties are especially strict, including a provision that any presidential candidate who campaigns in a state that violates the schedule would forfeit delegates from that state.

Some candidates could write off the Florida primary, rather than spend millions in a state that won't earn them a single delegate.

To avoid that scenario, the national party is urging Florida Democrats to make the Jan. 29 primary officially meaningless on the Democratic side. The state party would later hold caucus elections across the state or a state convention to divvy up the more than 200 delegates, a process that could cost Democrats millions to fund.

State Democratic chairwoman Karen Thurman said no decision has been made, and her main goals are making sure the party is positioned to win Florida and that no voters feel disenfranchised.

"Floridians want a voice, and the party ought to care about what these Florida voters think about these candidates, " said Sink, who has not endorsed any presidential candidate. "Somebody's going to have to blink here, and I think it should be the national party."

But the national party rules were drawn up nearly two years ago to avoid the kind of primary free-for-all Florida has created. Backing off the penalties looks unlikely because it would mean states that abided by the rules would be giving Florida Democrats a pass for breaking them.

The Democratic National Committee has given Florida Democrats an extension for submitting the required delegate selection plan while both sides discuss options.

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