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STRAW POLL ON PARTY'S AGENDA

As if the Democratic candidates weren't already flummoxed over how to handle Florida's early presidential primary, now they could face another Florida curveball: thousands of Florida activists formally voting in October on their preferred nominee.

State Democratic leaders on Saturday are scheduled to decide whether to hold a nonbinding straw poll at their state party convention. The unexpected move could force some campaigns to pump tens of thousands of dollars into campaigning for an officially meaningless event.

State Democratic chairwoman Karen Thurman said she's neutral on the proposal but fears that some presidential candidates might skip the Oct. 26-28 state party convention at Disney World if a straw poll is held. Supporters of the straw poll say it may be unlikely given Thurman's lukewarm reception, but that the state executive committee vote Saturday could be unpredictable.

The party's prior straw polls have been significant, at least symbolically: Bill Clinton always credited his Florida win in 1991 with helping him win the nomination. Jimmy Carter in 1975 tamped down George Wallace's Southern appeal, and in 1979 Carter crushed Ted Kennedy among Democrats gathered in St. Petersburg.

"The major gripe about it from the candidates is, 'Hey, I don't want to spend money in Florida. I just want to drain money from Florida so I can spend lots of bucks in Iowa and New Hampshire and maybe Nevada,' " said George Maurer, a party activist from Key West, who argues a straw poll would motivate activists early in a key state.

As it is, Florida is violating national party rules by scheduling its primary so early - Jan. 29. The Democratic National Committee's rules committee is expected to rule later this month that Florida is in violation and strip delegates to the convention away from Florida.

Among the candidates, only Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd on Tuesday would commit to attending the convention whether or not Florida schedules a straw poll.

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

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