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Clinton's solutions for Florida, Michigan delegates fall short

To hear her campaign tell it, Hillary Rodham Clinton is fighting the good fight to give Florida Democrats a say in the presidential primary, while Barack Obama is blocking her noble efforts.

"This new strategy of denying and disempowering and disenfranchising the voters in Florida and Michigan is, I believe, a terrible mistake,'' Bill Clinton said in Indiana on Monday. "Hillary believes their votes should be counted."

Nice try. But with every passing day, Sen. Clinton looks like the one most likely to disenfranchise Florida Democrats, not Sen. Obama.

At a time when finding a real solution to the stalemate has grown critical, Team Clinton continues bellowing about the two options most everyone in Florida knows are impossible: counting the results from the Jan. 29 primary or holding an entirely new primary election by June.

At least the Obama campaign, which for so long was dismissive of the Florida results, is opening the door for viable solutions to this primary debacle.

Though that's not what the Clinton people say: "The Obama campaign will have a very hard time competing in Florida and Michigan, given their systematic efforts to disenfranchise voters in those two states,'' Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said Monday.

Wolfson added, "(Obama's campaign) could come out today with a strong statement saying, 'We believe there should be votes in both of these states, and we want to work to help ensure that there are votes in each of these states,' but they're not doing that.''

Obama Florida finance chairman Kirk Wagar was skeptical.

"Another Florida primary? Are the polling places going to be manned with unicorns and leprechauns?" he asked, referring to the numerous Florida elections officials who say they won't have voting machines ready in time for any election before June. "The Clinton campaign cares about talking points more than actually getting something done."

The Obama campaign, meanwhile, is softening its position that the votes of 1.75-million Florida Democrats were irrelevant because the national party declared the election meaningless and the candidates did not campaign in Florida.

Key Obama surrogates, including Democratic National Committee member Allan Katz, are signaling that the campaign might support a plan to divvy up Florida's delegates based at least partly on the Jan. 29 results, which Clinton won by 17 percentage points.

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe on Monday said a fair solution would be to divide the Florida delegates in half, but he called that "a place to start from" in negotiating.

"We're hoping that more urgent negotiations will take place. We certainly would like to be party to a settlement,'' Plouffe said. "When we wrap up this nomination, if (Florida and Michigan) are unsettled, we'll settle them. But I think it will be in everybody's interest to try and settle this over the next period of weeks so that there's some certainty about the delegations' participation in Denver."

The Clinton campaign has shown no interest in negotiating. Nor did it show much enthusiasm for the Florida Democrats' proposal to hold a statewide mail-in primary — until after the state party finally killed that idea.

Perhaps the Clinton campaign has concluded that using the Florida and Michigan mess as a cudgel to slam Obama's electability is preferable to finding a solution.

"We have to have the campaigns come out of their respective corners and be willing to negotiate," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, a Clinton backer. "I have yet to hear a commitment from Obama that the Florida delegation should be seated."

This whole dilemma stems from the Democratic National Committee stripping away all of Florida and Michigan's delegates as punishment for holding primaries earlier than allowed. At the time, most people assumed it wouldn't make much difference, because by mid February the party would have a clear nominee who would make sure Florida and Michigan got seated.

Some key Clinton strategists think the best opportunity to resolve the Florida problem is a little-noticed appeal of that punishment by Jon Ausman, an uncommitted DNC member from Tallahassee.

Ausman contends that the DNC's rules committee lacks the authority to keep Florida's superdelegates from voting at the convention, and some rules-savvy DNC members think he has a strong case. More questionable is Ausman's argument that only half of Florida's delegates should have been stripped.

The DNC's rules and bylaws committee is likely to take up Ausman's challenge in a few weeks and could wind up with a politically sticky verdict: Elite party officials and elected officials get a voice in the nomination, but not delegates representing everyday Democrats. Nice message that would send.

If Hillary Clinton really cares about Florida Democrats having a voice in the nomination, she ought to make sure her allies on the committee find a way to embrace Ausman's challenge and get Florida's delegates seated. And she ought to hammer out a deal between her campaign, Obama's and the DNC.

Otherwise, to paraphrase her critique of Obama, all her calls to give voice to Florida voters are just words.

Information from NBC's First Read was used in this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8241.

Clinton's solutions for Florida, Michigan delegates fall short 03/24/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 26, 2008 9:26am]
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