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Analysis

Race is still too close for Obama to give in on Florida delegates

Here's a simple, logical way to give Florida a voice in the Democratic presidential nomination: Barack Obama could join Hillary Rodham Clinton in calling for their national party to count the 1.75-million Democratic votes in Florida's disqualified Jan. 29 primary.

Clinton would net 38 pledged delegates, but Obama would still maintain a solid overall lead. The Democratic frontrunner would put behind him a damaging issue in a critical swing state, take a line of attack away from Clinton and bolster his image as a politician inclined to take the high ground.

Why Obama won't do that — because it could cost him the nomination — underscores how volatile the marathon Democratic race remains and how resolving Florida's Democratic delegate debacle remains a major challenge.

And it's not just Obama. Clinton, by many accounts, could be better off leaving Florida unresolved than agreeing to any compromise.

So where's this headed? Despite a smiling photo op in Washington last week with DNC chairman Howard Dean and the state party, no one knows.

Those who are most optimistic about a quick resolution hope the primary contest ends in a few weeks, say if Clinton is upset in Pennsylvania April 22 or is blown out in both Indiana and North Carolina on May 6. But those are very big ifs, and Clinton has given no hint she might drop out before the voting ends June 3 or before the uncommitted superdelegates weigh in after that.

Compromise sought

Dean says the candidates have to agree on some compromise for seating Florida and Michigan, but there's no indication any agreement is possible.

"Right now the Clinton argument is if you want anything less than 100 percent of the vote to count in Florida and in Michigan, you are basically taking away people's votes,'' said Obama fundraiser Allan Katz, a DNC member from Tallahassee. "That's not compromise."

Said Clinton spokesman Phil Singer: "We need to honor the principle that this country was founded on — one person, one vote — and make sure we don't hand John McCain a political cudgel to hit us over the head with come November."

Despite the chorus of pundits suggesting Clinton needs to accept reality and give up, Obama is still too worried about her to let her gain much from Florida. After all, this race ultimately will come down to the decision of more than 300 uncommitted so-called superdelegates -— party notables who can support whomever they want — and Obama can't take anything for granted.

Consider the math.

The Illinois senator leads Clinton by nearly 140 delegates, with 10 contests remaining. Counting Florida's Jan. 29 primary fully would net Clinton 38 pledged delegates. Then, factor in Florida's 26 superdelegates, some of whom already are committed. Many remain undecided and if things break her way, Clinton could make a net gain of another six to eight delegates.

Michigan also had its delegates stripped away by the national party for holding a primary earlier than allowed. It's an even tougher problem to fix, because Obama's name wasn't on the ballot when Clinton won there with 55 percent of the vote. But if Florida's superdelegates get seated, so would Michigan's, which plausibly could net Clinton another 10 delegates.

"Look how much money the Obama campaign spent winning all their delegates and he's going to give away a third of his lead? I don't think so,'' said Jon Ausman, an uncommitted Democratic National Committee member who has challenged the party rules to get some Florida delegates seated.

Even if only half of Florida's pledged delegates are counted -— netting Clinton 19 pledged delegates instead of 38 — Obama's overall lead could drop to double digits. The smaller his lead, the easier it is for Clinton to persuade skittish superdelegates that they could support her even with Obama having won more pledged delegates over the marathon primary season.

"In the end, I want to be for the one that's got the best chance of winning,'' said DNC member Rudy Parker of Perry, one of Florida's superdelegates and a former John Edwards supporter who has yet to choose a new candidate. "I'm afraid we're going to do what we always do and nominate someone who can't win.''

There are two major vehicles for resolving the Florida delegate issue: the DNC's credentials committee, which would be made up mainly by appointees of Clinton and Obama and has responsibility for the matter starting June 29, and the DNC's rules and bylaws committee, which has the authority to resolve the issue anytime before June 29.

Dean appears to be suggesting that the credentials committee would make a final decision, which would have to be ratified at the national convention in Denver.

But two pending appeals to the rules committee by Ausman could offer an opportunity to end the controversy well before the convention. Ausman contends in his challenges that the rules committee overstepped its authority in stripping away all of Florida's delegates last year, and many observers think he makes a credible case.

Panel could decide

Clinton herself has called on the rules committee to take action to seat Florida's delegates, while the Obama campaign has been vague about the best way to find a fix.

The rules committee has wide authority to resolve the Florida delegate issue, including the power to split the Florida delegates between Obama and Clinton. It would also have the advantage of letting Democrats avoid leaving such a potentially volatile issue unresolved until the convention.

But as with most everything about this primary, there's no consensus.

It's unclear whether the rules committee has the appetite to tackle the issue without agreement by Obama and Clinton. Committee co-chairman Jim Roosevelt wouldn't discuss Ausman's challenges, but he said it could be weeks before the committee considers them, if at all.

But he says there's no effort to stall in hopes that a nominee emerges.

"I'd love it if that happened," Roosevelt said, "but I am not planning to wait around for that to happen."

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

Race is still too close for Obama to give in on Florida delegates 04/09/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 16, 2008 3:33pm]
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