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Primarily, Florida is just too important
By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
Published September 2, 2007
Mea culpa from the political beat
This piece was printed before any of the Democratic candidates started signing a pledge to bypass Florida's primary. Please refer to the story dated September 2, 2007 entitled, Democrats boycott Florida race .
If Florida schedules it, will they come? Bet on it.
The Florida Democratic and Republican parties each face sanctions for busting their national party rules barring all but a few states from scheduling primaries before Feb. 5. Worst-case scenario? Florida Democrats will have none of their 210 delegates at the national convention, and Florida Republicans will have their tally cut roughly in half to 54.
I don't buy the lament from some Florida politicos, especially Democrats, that the major candidates will blow off Florida as a result. Yes, winning the nomination requires winning delegates, but with or without them Florida is too vital and momentum matters too much, especially with some 20 other states holding primaries a week later on Feb. 5.
"Do you want the momentum going into Feb. 5, effectively a national primary, having won Florida or not? I assume waking up on the 30th you want the headline that you've won Florida," said Democratic consultant Bernie Campbell of Tampa.
A lot will depend on the importance the national media place on Florida. Winning nominations requires winning delegates, but given the emerging January 2008 schedule and that Florida is Florida, we'll be in the spotlight regardless.
"In any event, the Florida primary will be a major prize for the candidates," the influential Evans-Novak Political Report declared late last week about the uncertainty over Florida's presidential delegates. "No recent nomination has really come down to a delegate race."
As the ever-changing nominating schedule now stands, early January will be consumed with the first few nominating elections even the Wyoming GOP jumped to Jan. 5 last week. Just on Thursday, Michigan broke party rules and set its primary for Jan. 15 - for now, the earliest primary and one day after early voting starts in Florida - and on Jan. 19 the South Carolina Republicans hold a primary. Then on the 29th, Florida and the South Carolina Democrats share the national stage.
"Florida's the only game in town for 10 days," crowed state Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, of the Republican primary.
Ultimately, though, delegates do matter and resources are limited. So let's consider the calculations the assorted campaigns must make about Florida's primary:
The underdogs. Democrats Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson and Republicans Sam Brownback, Mike Huckabee and John McCain are all credible and potentially appealing contenders. But barring any big surges, we can forget about these candidates putting serious time or money into Florida any time soon.
They can't afford a state that requires $1-million for a week of TV, and each is counting on riding momentum from the small, earliest states like Iowa and New Hampshire. The last thing any of them need are big states like Florida to usurp the role of states where substantive, person-to-person campaigning is the tradition.
"Powerful interests are trying to change the Democratic nomination for president into a game of Monopoly, replacing the retail politics of Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire with a process in which the only credential necessary to be president is to be the wealthiest candidate," Biden complained recently.
John Edwards may be tied or leading in Iowa, according to the polls, but Edwards doesn't have the resources to play in Florida. His campaign's probably over if he loses Iowa anyway.
"I do believe there is a role for a larger state in this process whether that be Florida or wherever," Edwards' campaign manager, former Michigan U.S. Rep. David Bonior, told the Boston Globe last week. "But this campaign is focused on the four early states of Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina because that is where the issues matter most."
Ouch. Florida issues don't matter as much?
Hillary Clinton is the prohibitive Florida front-runner and anything that elevates the importance of the state helps her.
She hasn't started hiring Florida-based staff, but all indications point to a major Clinton effort in Florida, which could even provide a cushion against disappointing showings in early states. A victory might be a bit hollow, though, if she's the only candidate playing hard in the state.
Barack Obama is the most unpredictable Florida player. While he's hired a Florida campaign director and launched some Cuba policy initiatives aimed at South Florida, his campaign has also been vague and noncommittal about the state. In the end, he has the money and probably has no choice but to compete.
Unlike the Democrats, the leading Republicans have left no doubt that Florida is central to their strategy. Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani both have built robust campaign organizations across the state, with Romney nearly a year ago starting to tap heavily into Jeb Bush's political machine.
"Florida is the firewall" shouts the headline on a 37-page Giuliani campaign PowerPoint presentation obtained last week by the St. Petersburg Times. Should Giuliani fall short in the first few contests, his campaign sees Florida as crucial state to rocket him into "Tsunami Tuesday" on Feb. 5.
Fred Thompson won't formally jump into the race until Thursday, but it's already clear Florida's a big part of the former Tennessee senator's strategy. His committee's national political director, Randy Enwright, is a veteran Florida strategist, he's making Florida one of the first stops as a candidate, and last week he tapped former Jeb Bush campaign adviser Todd Harris as his communications director.
"Florida is going to play a critical role both in the primary and the general election, and it's important for any winning campaign to have a staff that understands the complexities of Florida politics," Harris said.
History suggests that by the time the nominating conventions roll around, both parties will have all but anointed their nominees. Those nominees aren't about to insist America's biggest battleground state be barred from the nominating convention.
In the meantime, Florida Republicans are pushing to avoid losing any delegates, though no Republican ever suggested Florida might get bypassed by the campaigns.
That's not the case with Democrats, who face stiffer penalties but still may come to the same conclusion as the Republicans: Delegates matter in presidential elections, but not as much as Florida.
Times staff writer Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8241.