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Campaigns without candidates
In Florida, where Democrats dare not tread, their supporters rally on.
By AARON SHAROCKMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published January 17, 2008
State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, foreground, and Anne Tahal of Tampa, right, cheer Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton during a party in Tampa to watch the Democratic debate Tuesday.
[Martha Rial | Times]
TAMPA - As Barack Obama races from South Carolina to Nevada, Megan Foster sits in her Tampa home planning the unofficial, underground Obama Florida strategy. Her resources, to put it politely, are limited.
Candidate appearances: None.
Candidate support: None.
It's the grim reality of a volunteer for a Democratic candidate in Florida these days. The major candidates and their campaigns have ignored the state since September, a penalty for pushing the presidential primary before Feb. 5.
Yet Foster, a 50-year-old customer service representative for a commercial ice company, is organizing anyway. Forty volunteers are headed to South Carolina this weekend. Another 100 are staying behind for Monday's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. parade in St. Petersburg.
It's the same across Florida for the other major candidates.
Campaign operatives and field offices have been swapped out for scattered bands of local activists and Web sites. Obama has been replaced in these parts by Foster. Hillary Rodham Clinton is being played by former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman.
"We're on our own," said Betty DiMaio, organizer of Team Hillary Fort Lauderdale. "The campaign has cut us off. It's sad. We wanted to campaign door to door, but we had no literature to hand out. We've been doing everything we can, everything typical volunteers do."
Obama ignores Florida
The Obama camp in Florida is large - the Tampa Bay area group says it has nearly 800 members - but knows it faces an uphill battle.
Its own candidate is part of the problem.
On Tuesday, the Obama campaign sent a memo to national media reporters saying that the Jan. 29 Florida primary has "no bearing on the nomination contest." The wording was terse, almost angry, and received quick rebuttals from the Florida Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign.
"It's one thing to honor the pledge. It's something else to explicitly blow off a state you're going to need to win in November," University of Florida political scientist Stephen Craig said Wednesday. "To blow off people in your party who are going to have a chance to vote for you or against you in a couple weeks doesn't make much sense."
Local Obama supporters were reluctant to discuss the memo. "We're an independent grass roots organization," said Johnny Bardine, who helps Foster lead the Tampa Bay Obama group, the Tampa Bay O Train.
And their group is growing. They're planning all things associated with a typical campaign: sign waving, phone banking, minirallies. Like-minded groups are planning similar events in Orlando, South Florida and the Jacksonville area.
"We're not a part of the official party worrying about the hotels in Denver and the front-row seats at the convention," Foster said. "We're worried about making sure the right nominee gets in."
Everyone's on ballot
Unlike Michigan, where Clinton was the only major candidate on the Democratic ballot, Democrats Clinton, Obama, John Edwards, Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich will appear on the Jan. 29 Florida ballot. Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson, who have already dropped out, will also be there.
It means, if even only in the media's eyes, there will be winners and losers in the state before the end of the month.
The unofficial campaigns place varying degrees of importance on the outcome in a way that mirrors the results of traditional polling.
Foster and Bardine say the real focus should be South Carolina and the two dozen states that will vote for nominees on Feb. 5.
Clinton backers say they are preparing to send a message to the rest of the country. Clinton is comfortably ahead of Obama in most Florida polls.
On Tuesday, about 25 members of Tampa for Hillary watched the Nevada Democratic debate from a home in South Tampa.
"The candidates aren't here, but in every sense of the word we're actively engaged," said Alan Clendenin, who is a member of the group's steering committee. "Florida is poised to make a significant difference."
Freedman said she has raised $10,000 for Clinton in the past week, but the money can't be spent in Florida.
The group and the larger Florida for Hillary group are planning a limited get-out-the-vote campaign, along with phone banking ahead of the primary.
Pockets of organized Clinton support also exist in Orlando, Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.
"The vote is going to be very meaningful," Freedman said. "Florida is a microcosm of the nation. No matter what someone says, or how much they try to downplay it."
Edwards supporters are mainly united through his One Corps initiative, the official grass roots organization of the campaign. Florida has 84 chapters, with its largest in Broward County, where there are 144 members.
"Florida is not officially going to be important, but you can't ignore 4.3-million registered Democrats," said Doug De Clue, who's helping organize in Orlando. "There's lots of weight that goes with that."
In Tampa, Foster is busy organizing the South Carolina trip.
Phone calls for her assistance have been increasing each day, she said.