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Don't expect to meet the candidates in Florida
By ADAM C. SMITH
Published July 8, 2007
Florida got its wish in moving its presidential primary near the front of the nominating calendar. The state, just like Iowa and New Hampshire, is crawling with presidential candidates most every week.
But corralled the other day behind a barrier keeping reporters from asking Hillary Clinton any questions, I was reminded that Florida is no Iowa or New Hampshire.
The joke in those small, early-voting states is that folks don't make up their minds until they've seen each of the candidates in person four or five times. In Florida? Your chances, whether a voter or a reporter, of actually talking to one of the leading candidates who are zipping in and out of Florida are next to nil.
Indeed, there are plenty of hints that some of the Democrats are preparing to blow off Florida's primary. Consider that Democrat Barack Obama has not yet answered a single question from a Floridian who has not written a big check to attend a private reception. Nor has Democrat John Edwards.
Clinton and the leading Republican candidates have been more accessible, but - other than Mitt Romney, who has welcomed media interviews to improve his negligible name recognition - not much better.
Democratic consultant Bob Shrum once quipped that California is so big that a political rally there consists of three people around a TV set. Florida hasn't reached that point yet, thank goodness, but it's a massive state where communicating with voters typically requires millions spent on TV, rather than living room chats.
There's a reason Democratic Party leaders trying to craft a more ethnically, racially and geographically diverse nominating process allowed only small states - Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Carolina - to schedule caucuses or primaries before Feb. 5.
Those states are manageable for candidates without massive campaign accounts to mix it up with voters. Even celebrity politicians like Rudy Giuliani, Clinton and Obama can't get away in those states without occasionally taking unscripted questions from voters or reporters. Florida is more of a state for quick tarmac rallies and costly TV ads.
"You've got to preserve the opportunity for those of us not able to raise the obscene amounts of money that are needed apparently to compete in the big states, " Delaware Sen. Joe Biden said in a taped interview for an upcoming Political Connections show on Bay News 9. "You've got to be able to provide an opportunity to have a chance to get in the game."
It's nothing new to have presidential candidates spending a lot of time in Florida, but this early in an election cycle it has usually been for private fundraising receptions. What's new since state leaders moved the presidential primary from March to Jan. 29 is that candidates now are holding public events to drum up local coverage and organizing state campaign operations.
On Saturday, Giuliani and Romney were scheduled to hold town hall meetings in Jacksonville and West Palm Beach. Republicans are way ahead of the Democrats in organizing full campaigns in Florida.
"There's been so much uncertainty about Florida, " said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. "The biggest uncertainty is whether you're going to be just a beauty contest or not."
Democratic National Committee rules punish states like Florida that violate the DNC schedule. Under the penalties likely to go into effect in late August, any candidate who campaigns in Florida won't win any Florida delegates. Florida Democrats at one point were seriously considering making the Jan. 29 election nonbinding and instead holding caucuses later on.
Momentum from success in Iowa and New Hampshire often sweeps a candidate to the nomination, so delegate counts don't really matter. But if there's still a real contest heading into Florida, and the state officially has no delegates to offer, the would-be Democratic contenders will have to ask themselves some tough questions:
- Do they spend millions competing in Florida, with no delegates, or do they save resources for other expensive states like New York and California on Feb. 5?
- Can anyone claim to be a serious national candidate who won't or can't run a competitive primary campaign in America's biggest battleground state?
Clinton, who overwhelmingly leads early Florida polls and has a built-in advantage with the state's high-turnout senior voters, so far is the only major Democratic candidate who has made it clear she'll campaign hard in Florida's Democratic primary no matter what. Florida could be her fire wall if she fares poorly in the earliest contests.
Tellingly, neither the Obama campaign nor the Edwards campaign would even comment on whether Florida is a priority. Obama has the money to fight for Florida, but a poor showing in Iowa could finish Edwards two weeks earlier.
DNC chairman Howard Dean is in a tough spot. Unless he ignores the national party's clear rules, there appears to be no leeway for him to waive penalties against Florida. Even if he could make an exception for Florida, he risks provoking Michigan - which has long chafed at giving Iowa and New Hampshire such influence on the nomination - to join Florida in jumping earlier.
Thanks to our new primary date, don't be surprised to turn on your local news and see presidential candidates hawking their candidacy to Florida 17 months before the general election. Nor should you be surprised to see electoral mayhem and confusion break out among states jockeying for position in the nominating calendar, and Florida yet again in the middle of it.