KISSIMMEE — Delving deeper into Florida's Democratic delegate debacle than he ever has to date, Sen. Barack Obama said Wednesday that "a very reasonable solution" would be to count Florida's disputed primary votes and cut the state's delegation to the convention in half.
Still, in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, Obama brushed off Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's emphasis on counting Florida's primary as a meaningful indication of the popular vote. She in turn called that stance an insult to 1.75-million Democrats who voted on Jan. 29.
"In all these races if I didn't campaign at all and this had just been a referendum on name recognition, Sen. Clinton would be the nominee,'' Obama told the Times during his first campaign trip to Florida in eight months. "It's pretty hard to make an argument that somehow you winning what is essentially a name recognition contest in Florida was a good measure of electoral strength there."
Obama is trying to move beyond the primary dispute and make up for lost time in America's biggest battleground state, but Clinton isn't making it easy.
On a day when both returned to Florida to campaign, she was in the heart of 2000 recount country calling for Florida's votes to be counted. And in her own phone interview with the St. Petersburg Times, she chastised Obama for discounting the significance of the Jan. 29 election.
"I think that is disingenuous but it's also insulting to the 1.7-million Floridians who actually turned out to vote,'' she said, recounting a South Florida canasta club that fervently followed the primary and noting that Obama ads ran on cable TV in Florida.
"They listened to the candidates and they researched the issues. We do live in a rather intense global media environment and as the ladies in the canasta club did, they took this decision very seriously."
Florida leaders set a January primary to enhance the state's influence on the nominating contest, and the national party stripped away all its delegates as punishment for violating the official party schedule. On top of that, all the Democratic candidates signed a pledge not to do any campaigning in Florida except for private fundraisers.
Obama, who has declined to speak to any Florida reporter since August, made no apologies for that pledge. He said he had no choice politically.
"Had we not agreed to that, we would be in a position where on the one hand, the DNC was telling you, 'This won't count.' On the other hand, you've gone out of your way to offend the first two states where you know that it will count,'' he said, referring to the pivotal contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. "I would hardly call that voluntary."
The Illinois senator, just shy of securing the nomination, stressed that he intends to win Florida and doubted the controversy over Florida's primary would cause any serious damage to his prospects.
"I don't think that the average Floridian is spending all their time thinking about this," he said, as his campaign bus cruised from Tampa to Kissimmee.
"I think what they're thinking about is $4-per-gallon gas. I think what they're thinking about is 'my health care premiums have gone up 25 percent and my deductibles have gone up and I'm trying to hang on to the health care that I've got.' ''
Clinton, though, insisted that counting votes is a fundamental principle for Americans, especially Democrats and especially in Florida.
She stood by her position that all the votes from Jan. 29 should be counted. That could net her another 38 delegates, which still would not be enough to catch up to Obama's elected delegate majority.
A DNC rules committee is scheduled to take up the matter again May 31, and many observers expect they'll most likely divide Florida's delegation in half based on Jan. 29.
Why should Florida and Michigan avoid any penalty for violating rules that 48 other states abided by? Clinton noted that Republicans controlled the Florida Legislature but said perhaps the Florida Democratic Party might face a sanction of some kind, rather than rank-and-file voters.
"If there were to be some penalty, it should be aimed at the state party,'' she said. "I'm sure there could be a creative approach to this. I'm not making the decision, but I still believe that the voters should not be penalized."
Obama repeatedly stressed that as the likely nominee, he will make sure Florida has a voice in the actual nominating process.
But taking her count-all-the-votes message to Florida just as Obama was kicking off a three-day campaign swing in the state made it harder for him to make up for lost time.
"What is it the State Department says? It's not helpful,'' said Rep. Robert Wexler, a top Obama supporter in Palm Beach County.
Obama was eager to talk about other key Florida issues:
• He promised to stand firmly behind a moratorium against drilling off Florida's coast. "Compromising a national treasure that is the Florida coastline for a short-term fix to a long-term problem, I think, would be a mistake."
• He said that as president he would ensure the federal government follows through on its commitment to evenly split the cost of Everglades restoration.
• He emphasized his support for a national catastrophe fund to alleviate Florida's property insurance crisis, though he was vague about how that measure might ultimately get passed.
"It's important to figure out how to structure something that helps homeowners here in Florida but also preserves incentives not to develop right in the path of potential disasters," Obama said, sounding much like Republican John McCain, who opposed current national disaster fund proposals.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8241.