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FLORIDA MAY YET DECIDE RACE

With no Democratic leader emerging, votes could matter.

It's a dead heat presidential election.

Florida Democrats are howling about disenfranchised voters.

One candidate demands that every vote be counted in Florida. No way, says the other, decrying efforts to steal an election.

Bush vs. Gore in Florida in 2000? Wrong. Try Clinton vs. Obama at the 2008 Democratic National Conventional in Denver.

Sure, it's unlikely, but it's also absolutely plausible after a nationwide Super Tuesday primary left Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama poised for a long, delegate-by-delegate slog.

As each primary election passes without a clear winner emerging, Democrats are growing ever more anxious that Florida could end up at the center of a bitter and divisive convention fight over whether Clinton or Obama gets the nomination.

Call it Flori-duh 2008, the Democratic sequel, and put the lawyers on standby.

"If this goes to the convention, and if these guys are within a 100 votes of each other, I don't know what the hell is going to happen,'' said Allan Katz, a Tallahassee Obama supporter and member of the Democratic National Committee. "It's just going to be a mess.''

The problem in a nutshell: Florida and Michigan moved their primaries into January to have more influence on the nominations. As punishment for breaking its calendar rules, the Democratic National Committee stripped all of Florida's 210 delegates and all of Michigan's 156.

Both states opted to hold their elections anyway, then the candidates agreed to boycott the states and do no campaigning. Clinton handily won both, though she was the only serious candidate on the Michigan ballot.

Linchpin status?

It takes 2,025 delegates to win the nomination. The Associated Press calculates Obama and Clinton are less than 100 delegates apart as of Wednesday - 1,045 for the New York senator and 960 for the Illinois senator.

So, if the neck-and-neck delegate race continues, how Florida's and Michigan's delegations are treated could decide the nomination.

Among the scenarios envisioned by the number crunchers in the Obama campaign is a deadlock after the last primary on June 7, with 1,806 delegates for Obama and 1,789 for Clinton.

"I said a long time ago that unfortunately you had individuals sitting in back rooms at computer screens and looking at numbers, and a lot of people made the decision that Florida delegates were not going to be relevant,'' said Janee Murphy, a DNC member from Tampa. "I've said repeatedly, 'Watch, Florida is going to be the linchpin.'"

It's only a linchpin if its delegates count, however. Clinton, of course, has vowed to seat delegations to both states, but Obama is opposed. He argues that it's not fair to count the result of elections that everyone agreed would be meaningless beforehand.

DNC chairman Howard Dean says the decision will be up to a 186-member party credentials committee for the convention, but that panel hasn't even been formed yet.

"It hasn't sunk into their thick heads, the chairman and the DNC, the train wreck that's about to come if we don't get those delegations seated,'' said Democratic Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, a Clinton supporter.

Races aren't over yet

Time for a deep breath. Several more primary elections are coming up that could solve this problem. Obama or Clinton could seal the nomination as early as March 4, by which time a dozen states including Virginia, Texas and Ohio will have voted, or at least by April 22, when Pennsylvania votes.

Once a nominee emerges and the contest is over, most everyone agrees, he or she is likely to seat the Florida and Michigan delegations. The credential committee would likely make such a recommendation in July, and the full convention in Denver would be expected to ratify.

But if there is no clear nominee? DNC chairman Dean acknowledged on CNN Tuesday that possibility and said it would be bad news for the party.

"You don't want to have a divided convention,'' Dean said. "There have been two divided - three divided conventions in my political lifetime - in '68, '72 and '80. And they resulted in losses each time."

State Democrats' role

There is no sign that state and national Democrats are trying to iron out the problem, however. State Democratic chairwoman Karen Thurman said there is no alternative plan in the works should Democrats fail to get a nominee before summertime.

"If the Florida Dems wait until the credential committee is seated, all hell could break loose. They should try to come up with a compromise now,'' Democratic strategist and DNC member Donna Brazile said in an e-mail earlier this week.

Some Florida Democratic party activists have begun talking about holding statewide caucuses, essentially another election day, to elect delegates to the convention in compliance with the DNC. But Thurman and Nelson dismiss that idea, saying it could cost millions of dollars. Besides, they note, more than 1.7-million Florida Democrats already expressed their presidential preference on Jan. 29.

"The fact of them not campaigning was the choice of the candidates,'' said Thurman. "Florida Democratic voters, Florida Democratic activists, Florida Democrats who had chosen sides, went out and did the campaigning for their candidates. It was everywhere."

Nelson, meanwhile, predicts Florida and Michigan delegates will be seated no matter what. But why would Obama supporters recognize those delegations if they stood to hand the nomination to his rival?

Nelson's answer: How can you not?

"Are you going to strong-arm Florida and Michigan in order to get the nomination," Nelson said, "knowing you'd have very little chance of winning those states on Nov. 4?"

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

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