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Will primary matter? We may learn today

By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
Published August 25, 2007


WASHINGTON - War is breaking out between Florida and national Democrats over the prospect that Florida's January presidential primary may be declared officially meaningless today.

Sen. Bill Nelson is hinting at lawsuits, and national leaders of the "count every vote" party are suggesting the votes of Florida Democrats won't count in the primary vote.

Here's a guide to the controversy:

What's happening today?

The Democratic National Committee's rules committee will meet in Washington to review the presidential delegate selection plans of various states. Among those is Florida, which violated a DNC rule that forbids all but four states (Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina) from holding presidential nominating elections before Feb. 5. Lawmakers in Tallahassee moved Florida's primary date from March to Jan. 29 to increase the state's influence in picking the presidential nominees.

What's likely to happen today?

Barring a surprise compromise, the committee is likely to vote to strip Florida of at least half its delegates to the Democratic National Convention, making it less of a prize for candidates. The committee also could decree that presidential candidates who campaign in Florida would forfeit the delegates they win from the state, but most Democrats think the DNC committee won't try to punish candidates.

Why does this matter? Won't registered Democrats in Florida still be able to vote for presidential hopefuls?

Yes, people can vote for their candidate on Jan. 29, but officially the results won't matter. Remember, these primaries are really about divvying up delegates (roughly based on the number of popular votes a candidate gets), and winning the presidential nomination requires winning enough delegates. Normally, Florida has nearly 10 percent of the more than 2,100 delegates required to lock up the Democratic nomination.

While it's true that even an officially meaningless "beauty contest" in Florida would be a prize worth having for any candidate, there would be a risk involved in spending precious campaign time and money in a state with no delegates to win.

Why is the DNC coming down so hard on such a politically important state?

The DNC fears that letting Florida get away with breaking the schedule will encourage other state to do the same. In fact, Michigan is poised to move to Jan. 15.

Why are those four states allowed to hold elections before Feb. 5?

Iowa and New Hampshire have long traditions as the earliest nominating contests, but DNC leaders last year painstakingly crafted a schedule to diversify the early nominating contests and emphasize smaller states that don't necessarily require loads of money. Florida Democrats on the committee voted for that schedule and for the penalties for violations.

What can the Florida Democrats do?

One option would be for the state party to declare the Jan. 29 vote meaningless and then schedule a party caucus - essentially a big meeting - to decide how to split the delegates among the candidates. State leaders have looked into it but believe it's too expensive in a state this big and would still leave out many voters who couldn't attend.

What do the presidential candidates say about all this?

As little as possible. Most have been waiting for clarification on the Florida situation and trying to stay out of the controversy. Naturally, no one wants to acknowledge publicly the possibility they may not campaign hard in Florida.

[Last modified August 25, 2007, 00:57:58]

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