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Florida Democrats abandon new presidential primary

WASHINGTON — The Florida Democratic Party has aborted its plan to hold a new presidential primary of any kind, and instead will seek salvation from the same national party leaders who yanked Florida's votes in the first place.

That means any hope for allowing Florida to participate in the hotly contested nominating fight between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama lies with backroom dealmaking and the willingness of the major stakeholders, particularly the candidates, to find a solution.

In a letter to state Democrats on Monday night, chairman Karen Thurman said the party has ruled out holding any new election to give Florida voters a say in choosing the nominee.

Instead, the state party next month hopes the Democratic National Committee's rulemaking body will approve a plan for seating Florida's delegates to the national convention.

That same body, the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee, stripped Florida's 211 Democratic delegates for holding its primary on Jan. 29, a week earlier than party rules allowed.

What plan the committee may be asked to consider remains a mystery, however, even to those most closely involved.

One plan being discussed would count half of Florida's delegates, based on the proportion of Jan. 29 votes received by Clinton and Obama. Clinton won that contest handily, though no Democrats campaigned in the state.

But there is no consensus among state and national party leaders and the campaigns about how to seat Florida's delegates fairly or even whether they should be seated at all. And it may be awhile.

Florida's 10 Democratic members of Congress are trying to take the lead in striking a deal, but they are on recess for two weeks.

While they continued on Monday to call each other, the campaigns and party officials, their dispersion from Washington has the effect of taking a pot of simmering soup off the burner: Things cool down until they return.

Meanwhile, neither Obama nor Clinton seems in a hurry to resolve the Florida question. Locked in an increasingly bitter struggle for the 2,024 delegates now needed to clinch the nomination (several changes among superdelegates caused the total to drop by one on Monday), each side is wary of any deal that might give the other an edge.

State Democratic leaders said offering the DNC a deal it can live with is Florida's only hope.

"We researched every potential alternative process — from caucuses to county conventions to mail-in elections — but no plan could come anywhere close to being viable in Florida," Thurman wrote.

Last week, she and Sen. Bill Nelson, the state's top elected Democrat, proposed sending ballots to the state's 4-million registered Democrats for a June primary by mail.

But the plan generated little enthusiasm among party leaders and was considered something of a political Hail Mary, given the quick turnaround time and its projected cost of up to $12-million.

Thurman added that the party also surveyed the rank and file. "Thousands of people responded. We spent the weekend reviewing your messages, and while your reasons vary widely, the consensus is clear: Florida doesn't want to vote again."

At least one Democrat, state Sen. Ted Deutsch of Boca Raton, was not ready to close the door. Deutsch thinks the party has an obligation to examine the possibility of a privately funded primary.

But a new statewide election could cost $25-million, and counties are in the process of switching to new voting machines. What's more, ballots for military personnel abroad would have to be mailed by April 19, and party rules require a 30-day comment period, so there is no time to pull a new primary together.

Not wanting to cost themselves any bargaining power later, the campaigns were vague Monday.

"Today's announcement brings us no closer to counting the votes of the nearly 1.7-million people who voted in January," Clinton spokesman Phil Singer said. "We hope the Obama campaign shares our belief that Florida's voters must be counted."

Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said, "We hope that all parties can agree on a fair seating of the Florida delegates so that Florida can participate in the Democratic convention."

Some members of the DNC's rules committee have said they could approve a plan for seating Florida's delegates, but only if both campaigns agreed to it.

If such an attempt were to fail, Florida could implore the DNC's credentials committee, which has final say over the convention when it meets in July.

Of the committee's 186 members, 25 are appointed by DNC chairman Howard Dean. The rest are picked by the candidates, based on a percentage of delegates they control going into the convention.

But the committee's decision regarding Florida would then have to be approved by the entire Democratic convention when it meets in Denver. Many leaders worry that could cause a nasty brawl between supporters of Clinton and Obama, leaving the party fractured at a time when it needs to pull together.

"It's imperative that national party leaders participate in finding a solution," Nelson, a Clinton supporter, said Monday. "Otherwise, Democrats appear headed for a political train wreck that could involve a floor fight at the convention over recognizing Florida's delegates.

"That runs the risk of alienating a key battleground state in the runup to the November elections."

Republicans already are enjoying the show. In a newly published interview with Florida Baptist Witness, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush relished the irony facing Democrats who accused him and other Republicans of suppressing votes in 2000.

"I mean, this brings back memories of hyperbole and anger, mock anger," Bush said.

Florida's Jan. 29 primary violated national Republican Party rules, too. But the Republican National Committee took away just half of the state's convention delegates, and Florida played a big role in Sen. John McCain's ascension to the nomination.

Bush said the Republicans now look "genius-like compared to the DNC."

Wes Allison can be reached at

allison@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0577.

Florida Democrats abandon new presidential primary 03/17/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 18, 2008 4:12pm]
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