Will the Dems Let Florida Cut in Line?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Cathy Kapulka / UPI / Landov

Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama stands among members of the Florida A & M marching band at a campaign stop in Tampa, Florida.

Ever since its 2000 recount debacle, Florida has been America's butt of election jokes. But its politicians are determined to have the last laugh next year: they want to move the state's Presidential primary balloting to January 29 — a full week before the February 5 "Super Tuesday" primaries that will include heavyweights like California and New York as well as more than a dozen other states.

Why does the Sunshine State feel compelled to cut in line like this? Florida has traditionally held its primaries in March — so late in the year as to render the voting remarkably inconsequential given the large load of delegates the state sends to both the Democratic and Republican national conventions. But if 2000 embarrassed Florida, it almost emboldened it: it showed the state — which may pass New York in the next census as the nation's third most populous state — what a potential bellwether and kingmaker it had become. As a result, Florida's leaders have been clamoring for a primary position that lets it flex its new electoral clout. "More and more," says new Florida Governor Charlie Crist, "the nation is looking to Florida."

But Florida's gambit is symptomatic of a larger Primary War Between the States that is making the 2008 Presidential nominating process look more like a rugby scrum. New Hampshire law requires that its primary he held at least seven days before any other, and Iowa traditionally holds its caucuses the week before New Hampshire. That's why many are watching New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who has the power to set the date and who is legendary for his zeal at guarding the influence of that state's first-in-the-nation primary. While Gardner has tentatively scheduled the New Hampshire primary for January 22, he will not set a firm date until this fall. There has been speculation that balloting could even be moved up to December. So far, however, Gardner told the St. Petersburg Times, "I haven't seen anything in Florida that would threaten our tradition."

The parties have tried to draw a line at February 5 — Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean has even threatened to penalize Florida by cutting its number of delegates to the 2008 national convention if it holds its primary before that date, and the Republicans have issued a similar warning. That's one reason why, although Florida's House of Representatives has already passed a bill moving the state's primary to January, the more cautious state Senate has yet to vote on it. The state's legislative session ends on Friday.

Still, gaining nominating influence seems more important to states like Florida than losing delegates: they'd rather candidates feel beholden to them in the general election than at the largely symbolic conventions. Dean permitted Nevada and South Carolina to hold their primaries in January because he felt their heavier Latino and African-American electorates would be a fitting balance to the largely white Iowa and New Hampshire caucuses held that month. But Floridians insist, justifiably, that their electorate is as much a mirror of the nation's new demographic mix as any state's — all the more reason, they say, that their state should be able to help set the nominating direction. After feeling the nation's derision for being the last state to sway the 2000 election, Florida now hopes to win respect by being one of the first to sway the 2008 race.

With reporting by Karen Tumulty/Washington