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Edwards faces fight for Florida
By ADAM C. SMITH
Published June 16, 2007
MIAMI - Inside a banquet hall overlooking Biscayne Bay last week, John Edwards exhorted nearly 300 South Florida Democrats to join his fight for a more "moral and just" America.
"Tonight there will be thousands of children in Africa born with AIDS because their mother can't pay $4 for a dose of medicine. Four dollars, " said the Democratic presidential candidate. "The United States cannot stand quietly by and watch this continue."
Kevin Marshall, a ticket-taker on Miami's commuter rail system, was among the enthralled Floridians nodding or cheering in agreement.
"You believe John Edwards, " said Marshall, 49. "He seems to be somebody who speaks up for what he believes is right, not just what is popular. But Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama get so much more exposure."
In the newly pivotal Democratic primary battleground of Florida, Edwards would seem well positioned. This is a state that only Southern Democrats have won over the last 40 years, after all, and the Edwards campaign is loaded with veterans of past statewide campaigns in Florida.
Except that Florida looks much more like a problem for Edwards than an opportunity.
All the candidates are grappling with how to adjust their strategies now that Florida is set to be the first megastate to weigh in on the Democratic nomination. But seven months out none of the leading candidates faces more of a challenge in Florida than Edwards.
"Edwards has an appeal that could work across the state, but does he come into a state as expensive as Florida and try to compete on the same level as Clinton and Obama? That's the biggest challenge for Edwards, getting into a war where you don't have enough ammunition, " said Robin Rorapaugh, a Democratic consultant in South Florida not working with any of the campaigns.
Who benefits most from Florida's early primary? Sen. Clinton. She overwhelmingly leads most Florida polls, including one released by South Florida media outlets last week showing 36 percent of Democrats backing Clinton, 16 percent backing Obama, and 11 percent for Edwards, the former vice presidential nominee.
"Hillary's the one grinning all the way to the bank about the Florida primary, " said Democratic consultant Derek Newton of Miami. "With the kind of lead she has here, even though I believe her support is soft, if you're not prepared to spend $2-million, maybe $4-million in Florida to take her on, you probably shouldn't bother."
Lagging Clinton and Obama in fundraising, Edwards has been concentrating his efforts on a strong showing in the earliest elections in states like Iowa and South Carolina that are far less costly than Florida.
Mitchell Berger, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer leading Edwards' money raising efforts in Florida, said the Florida polls at this point reflect little beyond name recognition and that the momentum coming from a strong early showing could be decisive in Florida.
"The only polls that matter, " said Berger, "are the polls that come right after Iowa."
Edwards hopes to ride a wave of momentum out of Iowa to the nomination, just as John Kerry did in 2004. But in 2008, the primary elections follow much sooner after Iowa, giving less time to capitalize on momentum.
Now Florida has set its primary for Jan. 29, which could diminish the effect of Edwards winning South Carolina's primary that same day. Michigan, where Edwards' strong union ties could help significantly, is also looking at scheduling its election on Jan. 29. Then on Feb. 5, a host of big states hold primary elections.
"Edwards put almost four years' worth of work into the idea that he could draw a line in the sand in Iowa, and that's where he could possibly knock off one or two of the frontrunners, " said Bob Buckhorn of Tampa, another unaffiliated Democratic consultant. "That strategy was sound and had the real possibility of a successful outcome, but that has all changed with Florida and all these states moving so early."
Unlike the Republican presidential candidates already hiring operatives to organize Florida, the Democrats have only started interviewing prospective Florida staffers.
But Obama not only has much more money to spend than Edwards, but he has a growing network of grass roots volunteers he can tap to help compete in Florida.
Last weekend, 65 volunteers knocked on the doors of 4, 800 Tampa Bay homes campaigning for Obama. In April, volunteers helped organize a $25-per-person fundraiser-rally that drew 2, 000 to Ybor City.
Edwards did a similar $15-per-person event in Miami last week that drew fewer than 300 people.
Edwards is scheduled to come to Tampa on June 29 for a fundraiser hosted by trial lawyer Jim Wilkes and Steve Yerrid. Wilkes acknowledged Florida's early primary may be tough for Edwards because in such a big state, voters lack the kind of "personal connection" that is helping Edwards in other early elections states.
"It makes it harder, " Wilkes said of how Florida's primary affects Edwards. "Does it make it impossible? No. ...What I tell people is that if Democrats want to win the White House, John Edwards is the guy who can do it."
There's another dicey issue for the campaigns to consider about the Florida primary - the prospect of spending millions of dollars in a state that might not even offer delegates. Ultimately, winning the nomination requires winning enough delegates.
Because Florida violated the Democratic National Committee's primary schedule by setting such an early primary, the party rules state that any candidate that campaigns or raises money in Florida won't receive any delegates toward the nomination from the state.
For underdog candidates the question is whether they should commit time and money to a state that, officially, might be meaningless.
And can any candidate afford not to campaign in a state that is perhaps the best microcosm of America?
Heading out of the cheering crowd in Miami last week, Edwards implied Florida will see plenty more of him in coming months.
"I'm going to compete everywhere in America, " he said.