- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Florida struck a blow for political freedom last week in a rebellion over who should be allowed to decide when a state holds its presidential primaries — the parties or the voters’ representatives.

At least that’s how the Republican-run Florida legislature and Republican Gov. Charlie Crist see the issue over which the two major parties threaten to punish Florida and the winners of next year’s primaries if the state goes ahead with plans to hold its primary on Jan. 29.

The bill, which Mr. Crist will sign, would violate Democratic and Republican national party rules that prohibit any state from holding delegate-selection caucuses or primaries before Feb. 5, except the big four in January: Iowa, Jan. 14, Nevada, Jan. 19, New Hampshire, Jan. 22, and South Carolina on Jan. 29. In a growing wave of states that are holding their contests earlier than usual, Florida is elbowing its way into the front pack in order to influence the outcome of the 2008 nominating process.

The two parties want to apply the brakes on the front-loading movement, and their no-other-primaries-before Feb. 5 rule provides stiff penalties for any state that violates it — including a 50 percent cut in convention delegates. Mr. Crist thinks it’s unfair to bar major states from entering the primary starting gate, that this is really a state’s democratic right to set its own calendar in choosing parties’ nominees.

“It’s important to have a megastate weigh in early. Florida is a microcosm of America. It’s a good bellwether of how America feels,” the governor told The Washington Post last week. “Whenever someone tries to limit democracy, that’s not good. … We can all get caught up in rules and regulation. But this country is about freedom and democracy. ‘Let freedom ring’ is my feeling on this,” he said.

But the parties say “the rules are the rules” and democratic freedom has nothing to do with it. “The rules are clear. Any state that chooses to hold its primary before Feb. 5 will be penalized. They will lose some delegates,” said Republican National Committee spokesman Tracey Schmitt.

The Democratic National Committee and Chairman Howard Dean also are standing firm. “This is not the first time a state legislature has set its primary on a date outside DNC party rules. As with similar situations in the past, the DNC is working closely with the state party to look at the alternatives for proceeding in accordance with the rules on or after Feb. 5,” said DNC press secretary Stacie Paxton.

One idea floated by Florida Democrats, regardless of the state’s primary law, would hold Democratic caucuses Feb. 12. But that would impose a huge financial burden on their party. While the state’s taxpayers would pick up the costs of the Republican-engineered Jan. 29 primary, the state Democratic Party would have to pick up the estimated $6 million tab for the caucuses.

Florida Democrats, however, believe they can and will find a way around the state’s Jan. 29 primary conundrum. “The communication lines between our state and the national party are very good. There’s been constant discussions. I’m optimistic things will be worked out,” said DNC executive committee member Mitch Ceasar who chairs the Broward County Democratic Party.

However, the presidential front-runners have made it clear that no matter when the Florida primary is held, they will campaign there even it means defying party rules that forbid such activity before Feb. 5. “We don’t really have a whole lot of say about how the primary schedule is set. All we can do is campaign wherever there is a primary or caucus and that is what we intend to do,” said a spokesman for Sen. Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

“The DNC and the Florida state party will arbitrate this and we will compete on the final field vigorously,’ said Sen. Barack Obama’s chief spokesman Bill Burton.

Democrats smell a rat in the Republican legislature’s decision to move its primary to January, forcing Democrats to retreat on the primary calendar, while the Republican candidates, presumably, would have the Florida primary stage all to themselves.

“Don’t blame the Democrats for an act of the Republican-controlled Florida legislature. The Republicans may have been trying to do a good thing, or they might have been trying to be Machiavellian,” Mitch Ceasar told me. “Historically, we are in politically uncharted territory between the states and the national parties,” he said.

But Florida’s decision could have even wider repercussions on the primary calendar, triggering a domino effect among the other January state contestants. South Carolina could move its Jan. 29 primary up earlier, which would force New Hampshire to preserve its first-in-the-nation primary by holding it in December.

Meanwhile, Florida Republicans seem prepared to fight for their right to choose their primary date right up to the convention. “Look for some big fights over seating its delegates,” a Republican official told me.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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