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Florida Democratic delegates rate a front-row perch

DENVER

Imagine if the prodigal son returned home, his father welcomed him with open arms, cooked up the fatted calf to celebrate — and then sent him to a motel by a far-off industrial park.

That's pretty much the story of the Florida Democrats arriving in Denver this week for the Democratic National Convention.

After being slapped by the national party and shunned by the presidential candidates, they and their 27 electoral votes are now the belles of the ball. National party leaders voted unanimously on Sunday to restore the 211-member Florida delegation's full voting authority, which had been stripped away entirely and later cut in half as punishment for Florida's violation of the official primary schedule.

What's more, the Barack Obama campaign paid Florida the ultimate homage by giving the delegation front-row convention seats at the Pepsi Center.

"Half the fun of breaking up is making up,'' said Mitch Ceasar, Broward County Democratic chairman.

But there's still the matter of hotel accommodations for Florida. They're lousy.

"We're out in the boondocks — it seems like somewhere in Kansas, away from the action,'' said Michael Lockwood, a disabled 51-year-old delegate from Fort Lauderdale. "But people understand the greater cause and are united in winning the election."

Florida's delegation is split among three hotels featuring views of warehouses, Interstate 70, and an occasional shuttered strip joint. Amid the grumbling and confusion about having to find shuttles or pay for taxis to get anywhere near the convention spectacle, though, most Florida Democrats spoke with relief that their long primary nightmare is finally coming to a close.

"When you get spanked, you feel it,'' said former Hillsborough Democratic chairwoman Lynn Marvin. "But it's all good now."

The tough journey to this point started nearly 18 months ago when Democratic and Republican state lawmakers decided to move Florida's primary from March into January to give Florida more influence in the presidential nomination. The national party, trying to keep order and geographic and ethnic diversity, had decreed that only Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina could hold primaries before Feb. 5.

After Florida and Michigan, which also violated the schedule, lost their delegates, the presidential candidates agreed to boycott Florida's Jan. 29 primary, which still drew 1.75-million Democrats to the polls.

"The only way we will be successful is if we are unified as a party and all Democrats know we are full partners," said Chris Edley Jr., a credentials committee member from California who introduced the resolution to restore Florida's votes, which will likely be formally approved by the full convention today.

"It's been a long journey,'' said Florida's Democratic chairwoman Karen Thurman, who blamed the Republican-controlled Legislature for the mess and said that in hindsight she would have done nothing differently. "I'd like to thank the 1.75-million Democrats that got out and voted and showed their opinion at the voting booth. This is a gift to them."

The drama appears to be over for Florida and Michigan, but Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, an ardent critic of the outsized influence of New Hampshire and Iowa, said he's as determined as ever to change the nominating process.

"This showed you can challenge a system that doesn't work well and you can land on your feet,'' Levin said. "No state should have a dominant and privileged position in this process. Iowa shouldn't have it, New Hampshire shouldn't have it, Michigan shouldn't have it, Florida shouldn't have it. That's the principle we're fighting for."

Florida Republicans lost half of their 114 delegates as punishment for the early primary, but are sending a full contingent to the GOP convention in Minnesota next week, hoping their full vote will be restored.

Most Florida Democrats have long since moved on from the anger and anguish over Florida's officially meaningless primary. Republican John McCain needs Florida's 27 electoral votes to win the White House and with polls showing a neck-and-neck race, Obama has made up for lost time by showering Florida with love.

The status of state delegations is much observed at national conventions, and one measure is the star power of the speakers lined up for the delegation breakfasts. There's buzz that Joe Biden may pay a visit, but the early schedule, featuring such dignitaries as Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin and New York Gov. David Patterson, is not exactly bragging material.

Still, those front-row Pepsi Center seats are mighty nice. Only Illinois, Delaware and (of course) Colorado have it better.

"I don't think the delegates come for a view of Denver," Broward's Ceasar said.

"The only view that does count is the view of the podium, of which we have premier seats.''

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

Florida Democratic delegates rate a front-row perch 08/24/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 26, 2008 11:56am]
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