GRANTHAM, Pa. — Hillary Rodham Clinton rejected the idea of a backroom compromise deal between the candidates to resolve Florida's Democratic delegate mess, insisting a solution must come from the national Democratic Party.
And failing to give Florida and Michigan a voice in the presidential nomination would leave the legitimacy of the nomination in question, the New York senator said.
In an exclusive interview with the St. Petersburg Times, Clinton offered her most extensive remarks on the delegate problem and pushed back at the Democratic National Committee's philosophy of having the campaigns approve a settlement.
"I don't think it's up to Sen. (Barack) Obama or me to dictate any resolution. I think it's up to the DNC to decide how to proceed, and I would hope that it would do so recognizing what's at stake,'' Clinton said in the interview late Sunday. "It would be tragic if we came out of this process ignoring the will of 1.7-million Floridians, setting us up for a very unhappy electorate in the fall, giving Republicans this incredible argument they could make against us."
Clinton clearly is paying close attention to the Florida matter, showing a better understanding of the arcane details of the Sunshine State's delegate mess than some of her top operatives. She often was animated when talking about the significance of Florida's officially meaningless primary, which she won by 17 percentage points.
Clinton dismissed the suggestion that she had snubbed Florida primary voters by signing an oath not to campaign in the state, which ran afoul of DNC rules by holding its primary Jan. 29. Only four states are allowed to hold elections earlier than Feb. 5.
"Apparently voters didn't think so. When you look, we had more than a million people turn out than turned out previously," she said.
"They followed it, they were avidly interested in it, and they wanted their votes to count. Otherwise people would have just blown it off. That is not what happened."
So why didn't she speak up sooner about the need to count the votes of Florida Democrats, rather than wait until her campaign was in trouble after losses in Iowa and South Carolina?
"I was a little preoccupied,'' she said, laughing. "I was trying to stay alive, frankly."
Had Florida's election been recognized, Clinton would have netted 38 delegates over Obama, who leads by about 135, so it's in her interest to get Florida's votes counted.
Clinton also suggested that no one paying attention to the overall popular vote should forget that she received nearly 300,000 more votes in Florida than Obama. RealClearPolitics.com, a Web site that works as a national clearinghouse for political news reports and polling, estimates that if Florida votes were considered, Obama's popular vote lead would shrink from 827,000 to 533,000.
The DNC, trying to maintain some order in the primary calendar, set rules that allowed only Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina to hold contests before Feb. 5.
But Florida leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike, wanted the state to have more influence in the nominations for both parties and pushed for a primary before the original March date.
Many state leaders expected the national parties to impose some penalty for violating rules, but they thought those penalties would be lifted for such a politically important state once the nominees were chosen.
Instead, the DNC stripped Florida of all its delegates, and the Democratic race between Clinton and Obama has slogged on and on.
With no clear end in sight until perhaps as late as August, there's no consensus on how to reinstate lost delegates for Florida and Michigan, the other state to break the rules. Clinton wants to count the Florida election results and Obama doesn't. The DNC has taken a hands-off approach, saying the two campaigns should come to an agreement on how to deal with the lost delegates.
A record 1.75-million Democrats turned out to vote, despite having no delegates at stake and the candidates' refusal to campaign in the state. It's worth noting, however, that in addition to the presidential primary question, Florida voters were asked to approve a significant property tax cut plan on the January ballot.
The Obama campaign has consistently dismissed the significance of the Florida contest, saying an election without campaigning is not a real test of electoral strength.
Nonsense, Clinton said.
"Then why did he run a nationwide cable buy? Why did he up his (TV) buy in southern Georgia because it went over the border? Why did he ship in yard signs and all the rest of it?" the former first lady said. "He competed, come on."
Obama's campaign has said it tried to exclude Florida from a national cable TV ad buy but couldn't, and the Clinton campaign could provide no evidence that Obama bought extra TV time along Florida's northern border. Campaign aides said Clinton was repeating something she heard from a supporter.
Still, Clinton ardently rejected the notion that Florida's vote should be discounted. She said history in the state makes it vital.
"It was a real election in the minds of 1.7-million Democrats," she said. "They're not interested in the ins and the outs and the back and the forth. They came to vote.
"They were tired of being disenfranchised. They saw a Democrat deprived of a congressional seat in 2006 because mysteriously thousands of votes weren't counted. They saw problems in the '04 election. And everybody remembers 2000.
"So the voters, the Democrats in Florida, they could care less about all of this process stuff. They wanted to participate, and they did."
While some Obama supporters have talked about working out a compromise to recognize the Jan. 29 results in a way that gives Clinton a few extra Florida delegates, the Obama campaign has only publicly proposed dividing Florida and Michigan's delegates evenly.
Clinton said that would clearly disenfranchise Florida voters. Likewise, she declined to embrace the proposal by her most prominent supporter in Florida, Sen. Bill Nelson, who has suggested Florida send a full delegation to the August convention in Denver, but that each delegate would have only half a vote.
Some observers, including Obama supporters, suspect Clinton doesn't want the issue resolved. The uncertainty over how to handle those elections could be a vehicle for a floor fight at the convention, and it could give uncommitted superdelegates a reason to hold off on moving to the frontrunner, Obama.
"That cynicism is not supported by the facts. I and my campaign supported a revote in Michigan. The elected officials in Michigan were all united — let's revote. The Democratic National Committee decided to support a revote. The only person who didn't want to let people vote was Sen. Obama,'' Clinton responded.
"The cynical explanation is, no, Sen. Obama does not want people's votes to count. We're Democrats. I thought we believed in counting votes."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727)893-8241.