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Fast-paced presidential race leaves Florida on sidelines

By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 3, 1999


Exactly eight years ago today, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton announced he would run for president.

Anyone who waited until now to announce they were running in 2000 would be $56-million behind Texas Gov. George W. Bush and who knows how many hired-and-fired consultants behind Vice President Al Gore.

In 1976, another Southern governor came out of nowhere to win his party's nomination and the presidency by slowly building support and raising money as he went along.

How well would that work now?

"Jimmy Carter would not have had a chance of being elected in the year 2000," Florida Sen. Bob Graham said last week.

The reason is the primary election schedule has been so manipulated and compressed by states eager to increase their influence that it has distorted the process of selecting nominees for president. There is too much emphasis on raising money now and too little time to build support and meet voters during the actual election season next year.

Members of both parties agree the maneuvering to bunch primaries so closely together so early in the year should not be repeated.

"There is no doubt in my mind we are going to do something," Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas said.

Yet the brinksmanship is continuing even now.

New Hampshire, ever so vigilant in protecting its first-in-the-nation primary, moved up its election date last week to Feb. 1. That would be the earliest ever, but it just had to be done. It seems little old Delaware, with all of 12 Republican delegates to award, was thinking of moving its date up to crowd New Hampshire.

And New Hampshire, with less than 1 percent of the nation's population, will be first no matter what.

"We'll hold it at half time of the Rose Bowl if we have to, to be first," former Sen. John Durkin said recently.

This is not going over at all well in Iowa.

The Iowa caucuses are set for Jan. 31. If the New Hampshire primary is the following day, it's hard to imagine too many candidates spending much time crisscrossing the Midwestern cornfields. Any momentum anyone could build in Iowa wouldn't have time to reach New Hampshire before the primary.

And where is Florida, which has more Republican and Democratic delegates to award than Iowa and New Hampshire combined?

On the sidelines and potentially out of the game. That's wrong, whether it sounds provincial or not.

So many states have moved their primary election dates up that the nominations for both the Republicans and Democrats could be all but decided before Floridians vote March 14. That looks less likely now for Democrats, with Bill Bradley seriously challenging Gore.

But California, New York, Massachusetts and Ohio are among the states holding primary elections on March 7. California used to hold its primary in June in an attempt to have the last word. Now everyone wants to be first.

Why does all of this matter?

First, fundraisers who scoop up the early money for candidates have replaced the party bosses that primary elections were supposed to eliminate. The voters didn't force Lamar Alexander, Dan Quayle and John Kasich out of the Republican primary. The deep-pocket contributors did by refusing to give them any more money.

Second, the campaigns are in full swing right now even though you wouldn't know it in Florida. Candidates are releasing serious, detailed policy proposals in areas ranging from education to health care. But few Americans outside New Hampshire and the pundits on cable television are paying attention.

Third, the primary schedule leaves no time for a Jimmy Carter or even a Bill Clinton to emerge. There isn't enough time between elections to reload with money and ideas. Candidates who don't have a full bank account by the end of this year will be out of gas no matter what happens in Iowa or New Hampshire.

Florida is really fouled up.

The Legislature did not move up the primary from March 14 to March 7 because of a fight over a campaign finance bill. The next best thing was for the Florida GOP to hold a straw poll or a nationally televised forum at its state convention, which opens Friday in Orlando.

But Republicans will have neither a straw poll nor a forum. Bush would not agree to a forum, although he will drop by Friday. The others didn't want to come because it appears Bush has the state sewn up with the help of his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush.

The Democrats expect to have a straw poll at their own state convention in December. But neither Gore nor Bradley have agreed to come.

"It's amazing to me we would sit around and let this happen," Florida Democratic Party Chairman Charles Whitehead said of Florida's waning influence. "You've got the fourth largest state that is almost meaningless."

More than a dozen years ago, Whitehead, Graham and other Southern Democrats thought they had found the answer to ensure Florida and the rest of the region weren't ignored. They created Super Tuesday, a day when most Southern states would hold their primary elections. The idea was to force candidates to visit the South and meet its voters while holding down campaign costs.

At the time, some newspaper columnists and other critics questioned the success of Super Tuesday. Some still thought Florida was ignored. Others noted that Michael Dukakis, a liberal from Massachusetts, came out of Super Tuesday in 1988 with the most momentum.

"I thought it worked well and accomplished most of its objectives," Graham recalled. "It's almost collapsed now."

In 1988, Democrats voted on Super Tuesday in 14 Southern and border states. On March 14, 2000, only Florida and five other Southern states will hold primaries.

Graham, Whitehead and Cardenas suggest that after the 2000 debacle, there could be a renewed effort to create regional primary elections. The country could be divided into sections, enabling the candidates to focus on one region at a time.

"This experience in 2000 is going to be so bad the American people will realize how they have been denied the opportunity for full participation, that maybe Congress will be jolted into action," Graham said.

Maybe.

Or maybe the states will get together and work something out the way Southern politicians tried to do in the '80s.

Just don't tell New Hampshire. Otherwise, the first primary election for the 2004 race might be before Floridians vote in 2000.

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