Will Dean Cost the Dems Florida?

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Brendan Smialowski / Getty

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean.

Florida's famously feckless electoral system usually deserves the ridicule it gets. But not this time. Instead of the typical jokes about Flori-duh, the Sunshine State debacle currently gripping the Democratic Party has evoked reminders of the Dean Scream — the notorious petulance of Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Howard Dean. He, along with the other sage bosses of the DNC, has left Democratic voters in what is arguably the nation's most crucial swing state feeling dissed, disenfranchised and, it now seems, disinclined to back whomever the Democratic candidate is in November. And that could harm the party's White House bid as severely as any butterfly ballot or hanging chad ever did.

According to a poll conducted this week for various Florida media, almost a quarter of Florida Democrats say they'll be "less likely to support" the party's nominee if their state's delegates aren't seated at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August — and by seated they mean counted in the final tally to choose the presidential nominee. Florida has more than 4 million registered Democrats, but even just taking into account the 1.7 million Florida Democrats who voted in the January primary, that's still a potential alienation of some 400,000 votes, on a peninsula (and the nation's fourth largest state) that ended up deciding the 2000 presidential race by a mere 537 ballots. In addition, some state party leaders tell TIME they privately estimate the Dem dysfunction will cost them at least 1% of Florida's sizeable chunk of independent voters, who number more than 2 million, or almost a fifth of the state's electorate.

Then there's the question of all the prodigious Flori-dough. Prominent Florida Democratic donors and fund raisers are now threatening to withhold or seek the return of hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars from the national party if at least some of the state's delegates are not reinstated.

Those risks were already apparent when Dean and the DNC made their original fateful decision. Last May, Republican Florida Governor Charlie Crist and the state's G.O.P.-controlled legislature — fed up with what they call an absurd presidential primary process that gives small states like Iowa and New Hampshire inordinate clout — decided to leapfrog Florida's primary from March to Jan. 29. The move violated Democratic as well as Republican party rules, but many if not most Florida Democrats also supported it. Still, the DNC ruled that all 210 of Florida's Democratic nominating delegates would be annulled. It exacted the same draconian punishment on Democrats in Michigan, which moved its primary to Jan. 15. The DNC also allowed Iowa, New Hampshire and other small, early-primary states to force Democratic candidates to pledge not to campaign in Florida or Michigan.

Dean has consistently argued that the integrity of party rules is at stake. But that seemingly principled stand rests on shaky ground. In a New York Times op-ed article this week, Michigan Senator Carl Levin and Debbie Dingell, a Michigan member of the DNC, pointed out that one of the perennially pampered primary states, New Hampshire, also broke newly established party rules last year by defensively moving its own primary to an earlier date — and the DNC allowed it. Even discounting that apparent hypocrisy, Florida Democrats insist that the moves by their state and Michigan should have indicated to the DNC that the rules were antiquated and flawed, and therefore required some flexibility. "I detest this ruling," says U.S. Representative Robert Wexler, Barack Obama's Florida campaign director. "This should have been a wake-up call to the party that the primary system needs to be more representative and democratic."

Either way, the DNC's lack of foresight is astonishing, even more so now that Florida and Michigan have rejected the idea of costly and less than reliable primary revotes. After all, the Republican National Committee annulled only half of Florida's G.O.P. delegates — a more measured ruling the DNC could have mirrored. And while Democratic rivals Obama and Hillary Clinton couldn't set foot in Florida in January, John McCain and his Republican competitors campaigned there and scored valuable face time with Florida independents, with McCain even winning the endorsement of the popular Crist. Despite all that, Florida Democrats campaigned with cardboard cutouts of Clinton and Obama and then turned out to vote in record numbers for the primary election, which was remarkably blooper-free by Sunshine State standards. All the while they were convinced that in the end the DNC would never shut out their delegates, especially with Clinton and Obama running neck-and-neck into the spring.

Their simmering frustration now is beginning to boil. "None of this makes sense to me," says JoAnne Bander, a Democratic activist in Miami and a Clinton supporter. "I feel completely disenfranchised. How can they dismiss the turnout we produced and keep treating Florida as if it were some marginal consideration?"

Perhaps because Dean and the DNC painted themselves into a corner. They can't easily lift the Florida-Michigan sanctions after all the authoritarian chest-thumping they did last year. Yet if the party heads into Denver without a clear nominee — and needing the votes of Florida and Michigan to decide the issue — their peremptory action will seem even more ridiculous, making the leadership of the so-called people's party look like a clique of arrogant patricians thwarting the popular will.

What's worse, Dean and the DNC now look all but AWOL when it comes to resolving a mess they did so much to create, leaving it to the states to figure it out. Nor have Crist and the Florida legislature been much help after they were the ones who led the state into the primary rebellion in the first place. (In this week's poll, Florida Democrats lay equal blame on Dean and the Florida G.O.P.)

With any hope of a revote in either Florida or Michigan all but dead, the candidates themselves aren't helping to resolve the mess they too helped create by going along with the DNC. Clinton accepted the DNC ruling last year when she was the front-runner; but now, because she won the Florida and Michigan primaries but trails Obama in the delegate count, she's the earnest champion of voters like Bander. She backed the idea of revotes in Florida and Michigan; but this week rejected a compromise solution offered by Democratic state Senators in Florida that would take the GOP tack and reinstate half the delegates (giving Clinton 63 and Obama 42) and perhaps divide the other half equally between the two candidates or divvy them based on the popular vote that has so far been tallied nationally. Clinton insists instead that short of a full revote, all the Florida and Michigan delegates must be counted and seated as they stood in January.

The Florida compromise was also rejected by Obama, who didn't even put his name on the Michigan ballot in January. Otherwise, not surprisingly, he is keeping sheepishly quiet — and a bit unpresidential — about the whole thing, looking to many as if he is simply trying to run out the clock by raising objections to a proposed revote in Michigan.

Meanwhile, little if anything is being done to appease angry Florida Democrats — whose enthusiastic support the party will need if the Florida sun is going to shine on its candidate in the general election. But either way, Florida isn't likely to be the butt of national jokes when this is all over. The new derisive puns may well fall instead on Dean and the DNC — starting with Dem-witted.