Florida Democrats Penalized for Early Primary

Florida Democrats are paying a steep price for their decision to convene a presidential primary on Jan. 29, a week earlier than allowed under party rules. The Democratic National Committee took away Florida's presidential nominating delegates.

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

Now, on the other side of the aisle, the National Democratic Party and Democrats in Florida are in the midst of a messy breakup.

(Soundbite of movie, "Fatal Attraction")

Ms. GLENN CLOSE (Actress): (As Alex Forrest) And what are we supposed to do? You won't answer my calls. You changed your number. I'm not going to be ignored, Dan.

AMOS: Okay. It hasn't reached "Fatal Attraction" level yet, but Florida Democrats are angry. On Sunday, rules imposed by the Democratic National Committee kicked in, penalizing Florida for scheduling its presidential primary on January 29th. That's a week earlier than party rules allow.

But as NPR's Greg Allen reports, Democrats in Florida are not going down without a fight.

State Senator STEVE GELLER (Democrat, Florida): There is anger and resentment among Florida Democratic activists.

GREG ALLEN: Steve Geller is the Senate minority leader in Florida's legislature. Like many Democrats here, he's mad at the National Party and chair Howard Dean for stripping the Sunshine State of all its delegates at next summer's convention. But he gets really hot when he talks about Democratic Party leaders in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Their crime -securing a pledge from all the Democratic presidential candidates that they will not campaign in Florida until after the state's January 29th primary.

The pledge does allow them to hold fundraisers, though, and that's why Illinois Senator Barack Obama was in Tampa over this weekend. Afterwards, he was asked about how the pledge - not to campaign - would affect Florida's primary.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): You know, obviously, you know, if Florida is going to be an absolute critical state in the general election, it will still have relevance with respect to the primary.

ALLEN: What Obama apparently didn't realize is that by making even these guarded comments, he may have been running afoul of his pledge not to campaign in Florida. The apparent violation was picked up by newspapers in Nevada and Iowa. At later appearances in the state, Obama told reporters he couldn't talk to them because of the pledge.

Democratic activist Genea Murphy(ph) says while in Tampa, Barack Obama also took time outside the fundraiser to shake hands with supporters gathered there to meet him. She says the pledge puts candidates in a ridiculous position.

Ms. GENEA MURPHY (Democratic Activist): I have this 10-year-old little boy that wants to shake my hand. Now, can I shake his hand, or is that can be misconstrued as campaigning.

ALLEN: Murphy wants the state party to press the Democratic candidates to pledge to restore all of Florida's delegates to next summer's Democratic convention. When asked about it in Tampa over the weekend, Obama gave a definite, maybe.

Senator Minority Leader Geller said he's mad the candidates can't campaign in the state, but he's no longer worried about the issue of delegates.

State Senator GELLER: We are the biggest swing state in the nation. They need us. Of course, whoever is the nominee is going to need us.

ALLEN: The larger issue for Democrats is what impact the pledge - not to campaign - will have on party-building activities and turnout in the January 29th primary. State party leaders are particularly upset that they'll have no presidential candidates in Orlando next month. They're now reaching out to candidate spouses, including Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama.

But they're sticking to their guns, saying penalty or not Democrats are holding their primary on January 29th. And they have started the campaign to spread the word among voters with a Web site called Make It Count Florida.

Amid all this, Republicans of Florida aren't even bothering to conceal their glee. The state GOP has launched its own Web site, a map that tracks Democratic fundraisers in the state, captioned: Democrat presidential candidates say they won't campaign in Florida, they'll only raise money here.

Republican state party chair Jim Greer says the Democratic stumbling over the January 29th primary date presents the GOP with an opportunity in Florida.

Mr. JIM GREER (Chairman, Republican State Party, Florida): Many Democrats are going to say we're so dissatisfied, so disappointed in our party not only this issue but on so many other issues. It's time to take a look at the Republican Party.

ALLEN: Democrats scoff at that, but they're seething. Given the importance of the growing Hispanic vote and the Republican Party's increasingly strained relations with Latino voters, Florida has a chance to wind up in the Democratic column for only the second time in 30 years. Instead, Florida Democrats are being penalized by the National Party and the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. At least two different lawsuits are in the offing. One is being filed today by Senator Bill Nelson and Congressman Alcee Hastings.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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