Campaign Crawlers

Brer Howard and the Tar Baby

This is a fine Florida mess you've gotten us into, Howie.

By 3.19.08

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TAMPA -- To re-do, or not to re-do, that is the question. I'm speaking of course of the Democratic primary in Florida, which was held Jan. 29, but, by edict of the Democratic National Committee, counted for naught. No delegates awarded -- none, zip, zero.

The DNC's credentials committee meted out this death penalty to Florida and Michigan because these two states moved their primaries to a date that Howard Dean and his associates deemed unacceptably early. Except for the fact that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama finished first and second, I guess you'd have to call the Florida Democratic primary -- in which a record 1.75 million Florida Democrats voted -- a beauty contest. Now these two beauties are essentially tied in their race for the Democratic nomination, and all hell is breaking loose in Florida. Democrats here are quite properly cheesed-off that their own party has disenfranchised them. No one seems to know how to fix this. What is finally decided here, and in Michigan, may decide the race.

I asked local Republican campaign consultant Mark Proctor to tell me, on a scale of one-to 10, how much fun he was having watching the Democrats go after each other on this issue.

"I'm at about a 12," he said. "I'm glued to the TV. I can't get enough of it."

You can hardly blame Proctor and other Republicans for rolling and snuffling in this and hoping that it goes on forever. The whole business contributes to the impression of a Democratic Party that wants to run the country but can't even run itself. This self-inflicted problem with no apparent solution reminds us of the problem Brer Rabbit had with the Tar Baby. Like with Brer Rabbit, the more the Democrats punch away at this, the more tangled up in it they get. (Note to the Obama campaign: This is NOT a racist comparison. So don't even start with me.)

The analogy to the Joel Chandler Harris fable begins to break down, though, when we see that there is no briar patch for Howard Dean to escape to. He and his DNC colleagues have bollixed this up, and there seems no way out that would come close to satisfying everyone. There are just too many constituencies with different interests here. Neither candidate camp is going to hold still for a result that is disadvantageous to their candidate. And any fix also needs to satisfy Florida voters, the Florida Legislature, and the DNC.

Florida Democratic officials spent most of last week in meetings and burning up the phone lines between each other in an attempt to come up with a way to make Florida votes count, and for the 210 delegates the state had before last fall's ruling to be seated. The option of another primary vote went down quickly after Florida Governor Charlie Crist and Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio (R-Miami) made it clear they weren't interested in paying for another election, which could, depending on whose numbers you like, cost between $6 million and $25 million to conduct. Besides, if a second Democratic primary were held, the Democrats would just have two contested elections on their hands instead of one.

Other options considered were to penalize Florida just half of its delegates, to have a caucus to select delegates, to divide the candidates 50-50 between Clinton and Obama, or to have a mail-in vote. Each of these options has one or more fatal flaws, and so on Monday former Florida congresswoman Karen Thurmond, chair of the Florida Democratic Party, conceded defeat and threw the ball back into the DNC's court. Fat chance of any help from there; that's where the problem started.

Speaking of in the court, the Democrats also haven't gotten any help from this arena (a favorite one for Democrats). Democratic campaign consultant Vic DiMaio, Jr. filed a lawsuit in August claiming that the DNC's neutering of Florida Democratic primary voters violates his 14th Amendment, equal protection rights. In fairly short order a Florida district court ruled that DiMaio didn't have standing to file such a suit, and that they weren't that keen on the merits of his case either.

DiMaio's attorney, Michael Steinberg, who is the Hillsborough County (Tampa) Democratic chairman, said he has appealed the case, which he claims has a chance of going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He concedes that if the case is going anywhere, it has to go there in a hurry, otherwise he and his client are bumping up against the DNC's June deadline for primaries.

If DiMaio's suit prevails, and this appears to be a long shot, the most likely outcome would be that both Florida's and Michigan's January primaries would stand, and delegates would be apportioned and seated in the same manner they would have been before Howard Dean and his DNC credentials committee had their brain infarct. Clinton won Florida's primary with 50 percent of the vote to Obama's 33. If it counted, this would give Mz. Hillary a net gain of 38 delegates, a fair fraction of Obama's current lead.

No one knows how to fix this, but Democrats certainly have an incentive to find a way. In a poll done March 10 for "Florida Insider," a subscription news service, 31 percent of Democrats polled said they would be less likely to vote for the eventual Democratic candidate for president if Florida's delegates aren't seated and counted at the Denver convention in August. Democratic defections at even much lower numbers than this would almost certainly doom the Democratic candidate in Florida, and give Florida's 27 electoral votes to John McCain. The few recent "if the election were held today" polls done in Florida show McCain comfortably ahead of either Clinton or Obama, in at least one case by as much as 10 percent.

One of the most painful memories for Democrats is the 527 votes that gave Florida, the election, and the presidency to G. W. Bush in 2000. As we approach what is almost certain to be another close presidential election, Florida stands a chance of once again deciding the matter. (Why should Ohio have all the fun?) If the Democrats lose again because of Florida, the wound for them will be deep, painful, and self-inflicted.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.