Party frets over fractious tone

Will Democrats unite behind their nominee when the sniping ends?

By Adam C. Smith, Times Political Editor
Published February 25, 2008

Instead of celebrating two powerhouse Democratic presidential contenders and a political climate that favors their party, a growing number of Democratic activists and leaders fear the process of choosing a nominee could leave a poisonously divided party.

America's first politically viable African-American presidential candidate is locked in a fierce contest with the first politically viable female presidential candidate, dividing two core elements of the Democratic Party.

The closeness of the contest between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton - he has built a small lead in delegates - has intensified the campaign rhetoric and the anxiety.

"If there's ever been a time the Democratic Party has been tested, it's now," said Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, predicting the eventual nominee will have extra work in store to unite the party. "This is a very, very difficult and unprecedented time for the Democratic Party. I have not seen anything like it in my lifetime, and I don't think I'll see anything like it again."

This is a particularly precarious moment for Democrats as Clinton's options for victory increasingly seem limited to tearing down Obama or persuading party leaders to hand her the nomination at the nominating convention even if Obama has won more votes and pledged delegates.

Anxiety is especially acute in Florida, the country's most diverse battleground state. Not only do Sunshine State Democrats see potential long-term damage should Florida wind up with no voice in the Democratic nomination, but they also see the prospect that the politics of hope could be trumped by the politics of race, gender and ethnicity.

"In the 66-some-odd years I've been doing this, this is the saddest election I've ever worked in," said Ginger Grossman, a prominent Democratic organizer in Miami-Dade County, who says she hears countless Jewish liberals tell her they won't vote for Obama if he wins the nomination.

"It's outrageous, and it's breaking my heart. I know it's because he's black, or I feel it is," said Grossman, a Clinton supporter who said she would also vote enthusiastically for Obama. "The worst of it is when they start calling him a Muslim and say, 'Why aren't they using his name, Hussein?' I pray God it can be overcome. It's devastating, but I'm hoping I can change it."

For all the glass ceilings being shattered, this tumultuous Democratic primary is underscoring demographic divisions within the party. In the crucial March 4 contest in Texas, for instance, the outcome may depend on whether Obama's strength among African-Americans can overcome Clinton's strength with Hispanics.

"When you balkanize a country, or balkanize a party, if you will, into subset groups, one pitted against each other, that's never good," said Democratic consultant Bob Buckhorn of Tampa, a Clinton supporter. "It's not good for the country. It's not good for Democrats."

Emotions and divisions are natural in heated primaries, and many Democrats downplay the potential for lasting damage, especially if Obama effectively seals the nomination with strong showings in Texas and Ohio on March 4. After eight years of President Bush, these Democrats say, Democrats will unite for the general election.

But how easily the backers of one candidate will come around to the other is not entirely clear.

Tampa businessman Frank Sanchez of Tampa, a member of Obama's national finance committee, says Obama has broader appeal among Republicans, independents and younger voters.

"You have literally millions of people who came into this process energized by Barack and who haven't necessarily been in the past - either because they're disenchanted or not excited about our politics," Sanchez said while campaigning for Obama in Texas last week. "There's a big chunk of those people who just will not go for Hillary."

Exit polls show Obama steadily broadening his support and improving his performance among white voters and core groups of Clinton's supporters, such as Hispanics and blue-collar Democrats.

But don't tell Palm Harbor retiree Doris Tann that she'll come around to Obama.

"I've never in my life missed a vote, but I'm not voting for that black guy," said Tann, insisting there's nothing racial about it. "I like Hillary and I think too many people are picking on her. Obama just gets up there and says a lot of words."

Victor Curry, an African-American radio personality and Obama supporter in Miami, says it's naive to think race won't continue to play a big role if Obama's the nominee, just as it would be naive to think gender would not be a big undercurrent with Clinton as the nominee.

"Barack Obama and his campaign are trying to run a race-neutral campaign in a country that's always made decisions based on race and gender," said Curry, noting Obama's decision not to participate in a State of the Black Union event hosted by Tavis Smiley over the weekend in New Orleans.

Some observers fear all-out interparty warfare could erupt if the Clinton-Obama contest continues all the way to the convention in August and party leaders hand the nomination to Clinton after Obama has won more votes. But those fears could be overstated as surveys of those party leaders, so-called superdelegates, show many of them following the electoral trend to Obama.

Curry said that no matter what, African-Americans who overwhelmingly backed Obama would likely unite behind Clinton.

"We've suffered so and America has suffered so under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney that if Hillary Clinton is the nominee, she will probably get 95 percent of the African-American vote, and they will come out in big numbers," said Curry, who is more skeptical that new voters and younger Obama supporters would turn out for Clinton.

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