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  1. Opinion

Florida Democrats, don’t mail that presidential primary ballot yet | Editorial

The race is too fluid and the stakes are too high to vote now for a candidate who may not be viable by the March 17 primary.

More than a million Florida Democrats have been sent their mail ballots for the March 17 presidential primary, but they should let those ballots sit on the hall table or the kitchen counter for a bit. The race for the Democratic nomination is too fluid for Florida Democrats to pick a candidate now who may not be competitive by Election Day. They should not waste their votes, and they should keep their eye on the goal: Backing the candidate who has the best shot at beating President Donald Trump in November.

While Iowa and New Hampshire pride themselves on being the first to vote, those contests have provided little clarity and no clear front-runner. The Iowa caucuses, already a byzantine relic, were such a fiasco that they should never be the first votes in selecting a presidential nominee again. The New Hampshire primary also wasn’t much help, with the top three candidates each finishing with at least 19 percent of the vote but no one breaking 26 percent.

The first two states are hardly reflective of Florida or the nation. They are small, overwhelmingly white and lack any urban area as large as Tampa Bay. In fact, Tampa Bay alone has twice the population of New Hampshire and matches the population of Iowa. More Tampa voters cast ballots in last year’s run-off for mayor than Bernie Sanders received as the top finisher in raw votes in the Iowa caucuses. So Democrats should keep the results of the first two contests in perspective.

Here’s another reason to hold on to that mail ballot: There certainly will be more clarity in the race for the Democratic nomination long before Florida’s March 17 primary. The Nevada caucuses are Feb. 22, followed by the South Carolina primary on Feb. 29. Then comes Super Tuesday on March 3, when Democrats vote in 14 states -- including California, Texas and Massachusetts -- and one-third of all delegates will be awarded. So when the Florida primary comes around two weeks later, the field of viable candidates probably will be counted on one hand with fingers left over.

While Florida Democrats hold their ballots, here are five questions to ponder:

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. [ GERALD HERBERT | AP ]

-- How could Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who received fewer votes in narrowly winning the New Hampshire primary than he when he won that primary four years ago, build the support from more centrist voters he would need to seriously challenge Trump? How would the self-described democratic socialist do that as he advocates for government-run health care for all, free college tuition and forgiveness of all college loans?

Democratic presidential candidate and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg [ JOHN LOCHER | AP ]

-- How could former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who finished a strong second in New Hampshire, convince general election voters he is prepared to be president after running a city roughly the size of West Palm Beach? Can he build any support among minority voters?

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. [ PATRICK SEMANSKY | AP ]

-- How will Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who finished third in New Hampshire following a strong debate performance, quickly build the national financing and campaign operation she needs to remain a viable candidate by the Florida primary?

Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden [ GERALD HERBERT | AP ]

-- How can former Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren recover from their poor finishes in New Hampshire? Can Biden come back and win South Carolina, and will the support he is counting on from black voters still be there?

Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg [ DAVID J. PHILLIP | AP ]

-- Can former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg take advantage of this muddled situation and make the case with his unlimited resources that he would be the strongest challenger to Trump? How will he perform if he appears in his first debate on Wednesday in Las Vegas?

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. [ JOSE LUIS MAGANA | AP ]

Granted, these are political questions, not policy questions. Democrats can debate policy later, although they will be making a mistake if they choose ideological purity over the pragmatic politics it will take to beat an incumbent president who has been emboldened rather than chastened by his impeachment. The smart approach is to keep that mail ballot and wait to see which candidates remain viable in the coming weeks.

The Tampa Bay Times editorial board is following its own advice. With the primary ballots already delivered to mailboxes, our normal practice would be to recommend a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president as early as Sunday. The race is too fluid and the stakes are too high to recommend anyone now.

Let’s see more election results. Let’s see who convinces more Democrats in more diverse states they can best challenge Trump. Let’s see who builds momentum and who fades. Florida Democrats, don’t mail those ballots yet.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.