Florida Democrats may be asked to go back to the polls for the presidential primary.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's big wins in Texas, Ohio and Rhode Island on Tuesday not only launched her back into contention for the party's nomination, but also heightened the prospects of do-over elections in Florida and Michigan, two states whose primary results were declared invalid by national Democrats.
"It has to be seriously considered at this point, but it would have to be another statewide election," said Miami businessman Chris Korge, co-chairman of Clinton's national fundraising committee. "It's a recipe for disaster if Florida and Michigan are disenfranchised and don't get seated."
Both states were stripped of their delegates to the nominating convention as punishment for jumping ahead of their assigned place on the primary calendar. Elections were held anyway, but voters were told the results wouldn't count and the candidates didn't campaign.
Clinton won both states handily. Many observers expected the mess to simply go away after Sen. Barack Obama surged into the lead for the nomination, reeling off 11-straight wins. But hopes that he could use victories in Texas and Ohio to effectively knock Clinton out of the race — and make the Florida-Michigan results irrelevant — were dashed by her strong showing.
She made only modest gains against Obama's delegate lead, but the high-profile wins give her big credibility with voters (and party leaders known as superdelegates) and assure that accumulating enough delegates to claim the nomination will be a hard slog for both candidates. More than ever, delegates from Florida and Michigan would be prized.
"We have discussed many things, ranging from the plans for the general election to a potential alternative primary to the process for appealing to the credentials committee of the National Convention to seat our delegates as currently allocated,'' Democratic chairwoman Karen Thurman said Wednesday.
But holding another election would require overcoming big hurdles. Among them: Finding as much as $25-million to pay for a statewide primary or as little as $4-million to fund a vote by mail election; and getting the Obama and Clinton campaigns to agree on a solution. Their campaigns likely would be tapped to help financially, but there is little consensus about whether a solution is even possible.
Still, Clinton allies have suddenly shifted from insisting that Florida and Michigan delegations must be seated based on their January primary results to suggesting new elections could make sense.
"Let's let all of the voters go again if they are willing to do it," said Clinton adviser Terry McAuliffe Tuesday night on MSNBC. "Whatever we have to do to get people in the system, let's do it."
Democrats in Florida's congressional delegation were meeting Wednesday night to discuss options and hoped to have some ideas to propose to Obama and Clinton soon.
Seat those elected?
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Clinton supporter, said she would prefer to seat delegates based on the Jan. 29 election results.
"But realistically, if that's unlikely or impossible, or practically speaking if we need to resolve this … we need to come up with a fair process and have both campaigns agree that it's fair," said the Broward County Democrat.
The Obama campaign steadfastly refuses to consider seating the delegates based on those earlier contests that violated the party rules because that was the agreement before the votes were held. His name didn't appear on the Michigan ballot.
But his campaign says it would compete in any alternative election approved by the Democratic National Committee.
"We will work with whatever they work out. We would like to see Florida and Michigan represented,'' chief Obama strategist David Axelrod said Wednesday. "There have been a number of different formulations that have been suggested to accommodate that, but that's an issue for chairman Dean."
DNC chairman Howard Dean said Wednesday that he would welcome any new election that would bring Florida and Michigan into compliance.
One option advocated last fall by the DNC was to hold community caucuses. Michigan Democrats, who have a track record of holding caucuses, are looking at organizing caucuses in May or June. But the Florida Democratic party, especially sensitive to disenfranchising voters since 2000, dismisses that idea because caucuses tend to have small turnouts.
Another alternative is for Florida to appeal to the credentials committee of the DNC, but that could be tough because the committee is likely to be evenly divided among Obama and Clinton allies.
State leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike, moved Florida's primary early to increase the state's influence in the nominating process. The DNC stripped away the state's delegates and the Republican National Committee took half. Michigan received the same penalty.
That means the 1.7-million Florida Democrats who voted in the primary have no voice in the nomination and the 1.9-million Republicans who voted have half as much say as voters in other states.
Republican Gov. Charlie Crist and Democratic Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm on Wednesday jointly called on their national parties to ensure Michigan and Florida voters are fully represented in the nominating conventions.
"It's unconscionable to me that some party boss in Washington is not going to permit the people to be heard," Crist said at a news conference in Tallahassee. "That's not what America is all about."
Even with half their delegates yanked, Florida Republicans got their wish and played a key role in picking the GOP nominee. The irony for Florida Democrats is that they likely would have played a bigger role if Florida's primary had stayed in March.
"The only thing we accomplished was raising Charlie Crist's profile to be considered for John McCain's running mate,'' lamented Rick Boylan, a Democratic activist in St. Pete Beach.
Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected] or (727)893-8241.