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Politics

Democrats' votes may not count, but do matter

By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
Published January 19, 2008


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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- First the presidential candidates decide to blow off more than 4-million Florida Democrats. Now, it seems the national media may as well.

"Does Florida count? Not on the Democratic side. Period," said NBC News political director Chuck Todd, a Miami native. "It's a meaningless contest where no one's really contesting, no one's campaigning. I'm trying to get people not to use the word 'win' because there is nothing to win."

Meaningless? The votes of more than a million Democrats in America's biggest battleground state won't matter?

"The national press tends to give contests importance based on what the candidates deem important, so my guess is that the Florida Democratic results will be given about the same weight as Wyoming's Republican caucuses," said Rick Klein, ABC News' senior political reporter.

In other words, the national media will pretty much ignore Florida's Democratic primary.

There are about 136,000 registered Republicans in Wyoming, by the way, compared to 4.1-million registered Democrats in Florida. But Wyoming still had 12 delegates at stake when it voted Jan. 5, while Florida Democrats have zip, punishment for holding a primary earlier than allowed under national party rules.

Not everyone sees Florida Democrats as irrelevant. RealClearPolitics.com executive editor Tom Bevan wrote in a column Friday that "the entire media universe will be watching Democratic results in Florida, guaranteeing the Sunshine State a big impact on the presidential race as it hurtles toward a critical moment the following week on Tsunami Tuesday."

Florida Sens. Mel Martinez, R-Orlando, and Bill Nelson, D-Orlando, are pumping up the importance of Jan. 29, although there's no question results matter on the GOP side. Florida Republicans lost only half their delegates as punishment for the early primary date, and all the Republicans are competing in Florida.

"Don't be fooled by all the talk that your vote won't count," Martinez says in a public service announcement the two taped together and released Friday.

"If you vote, your voice will be heard. ... And the winners in Florida could well decide who the next president will be," says Nelson.

But even Democratic U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler of Delray Beach, one of the most vocal critics of anything that hints of disenfranchised voters, on Friday stood by a Barack Obama campaign memo this week that declared Florida's Jan. 29 vote meaningless to the Democratic primary process.

"Do I wish it were different? Sure I do," Wexler, a key Florida Obama supporter, said during an Obama campaign conference call. "(But) the facts are the facts and both the Obama campaign and the Clinton campaign have stated at this point this is a contest for delegates. ... There will be no delegates chosen in Florida."

Winning the nomination requires enough delegates, and the Democratic National Committee stripped away all of Florida's 114 delegates.

What's more, the Democrats are avoiding overt campaigning in Florida. Terrified of antagonizing Democrats in early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire, the candidates signed a pledge to boycott Florida's primary.

Still, Florida Democrats are already voting in droves, cutting the traditional Republican advantage in pre-election day voting in Florida. By Friday morning, nearly 147,000 Democratic absentee ballots and early votes had been cast, compared to more than 151,000 Republican votes.

Those votes, Republican and Democrat, will be counted and announced just as the race heads toward Super Tuesday on Feb. 5, when 22 states vote.

"Florida is in the driver's seat. Despite what the Washington skeptics and preprogrammed pundits predicted, the nation's eyes are turning to our January 29th presidential primary," state Democratic chairwoman Karen Thurman optimistically declared in an e-mail Friday. "There's been a lot of fuss about delegates, but it's time to forget all that and just vote."

Obama, who has downplayed Florida in the face of polls showing Hillary Rodham Clinton overwhelmingly ahead, couldn't be better positioned. If Clinton wins handily Jan. 29, it won't make much news; if it's close or Obama wins, pundits are sure to declare it a sign of Obama's strength heading into Feb. 5.

A Florida Chamber of Commerce poll released Wednesday showed Clinton 8 percentage points ahead of Obama among likely voters in Florida's Democratic primary.

The way polls have bounced all over the place following developments in early voting states, there's every reason to think Obama might wind up very competitive in Florida against Clinton.

Here's the bottom line: Ignore the pundits and reporters ignoring you, Florida Democrats. Follow the lead of New Hampshire voters who showed how wrong conventional wisdom can be in politics.

In effect, Florida's Democratic primary is a pure straw poll of Democrats in a critical state free from robo calls, TV ads or mailers. As the campaign heads into a national race Feb. 5, you couldn't find a better indicator of how voters in a terrific microcosm of America view their presidential choices.

Voting matters, regardless of delegates, candidate appearances or campaign spin. Don't let anyone suggest otherwise.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8241.

[Last modified January 18, 2008, 22:46:46]


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