- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 6, 2007

Florida Democrats are struggling to mediate differences with national party officials to end an impasse over presidential primary date rules that threaten to impose severe penalties on their candidates for the 2008 nomination.

State Democratic leaders told The Washington Times they were working behind the scenes with Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean to choose a later date for its nominating contest instead of the Jan. 29 primary set forth in a bill passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature last week.

That bill, expected to be signed by Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican, would violate DNC party rules that prohibit any states from holding delegate-selection caucuses or primaries any time before Feb. 5, when only four states are allowed to hold their presidential-selection contests: Iowa, Jan. 14; Nevada, Jan 19; New Hampshire, Jan. 22; and South Carolina, Jan. 29.

DNC officials have said that if Florida Democrats and their party’s candidates participate in the Jan. 29 primary, it would result in penalties being applied against them, including a 50 percent cut in the convention delegates that are up for grabs in that state’s contest.

Republicans have similar rules forbidding any other primary or caucus before the Feb. 5 window, with lesser delegate penalties for any state party that violates them, though it is not clear how the Republican National Committee intends to apply them, if at all.

“The rules are clear. Any state that chooses to hold its primary before Feb. 5 will be penalized. They will lose some delegates,” said RNC spokesman Tracey Schmitt.

But Mitch Ceasar, a member of the DNC’s executive committee, and chairman of the Broward County Democratic Party, sees an eventual solution to the impasse. “The communication lines between our state and the national party are very good. There’s been constant discussions.”

One proposal being floated by Florida Democratic Chairman Karen Thurman, regardless of the Republican primary, would be to hold Democratic statewide caucuses Feb. 12.

But that would impose a huge financial burden on her party. While Florida taxpayers will pick up the costs of the Republicans’ Jan. 29 primary set by the Legislature, her party would have to pick up the estimated $6 million tab for the caucuses.

In any event, the Democratic presidential front-runners, including Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, have said no matter when the Florida primary is held, they intend to campaign there.

“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 Clinton campaign spokesman Mo Elleithee.

Said Mr. Obama’s chief spokesman, Bill Burton: “The DNC and the Florida state party will arbitrate this, and we will compete on the final field vigorously.”

Still, some Democrats say they smell a rat in the Republican Party’s political decision to move the state’s presidential primary to Jan. 29, forcing the Democrats into retreating on the primary calendar, while the Republican candidates presumably would have the Florida stage all to themselves on Jan. 29.

“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,” Mr. Ceasar said.

But other Democrats doubt their party will follow through with their threats of punishing states that do not abide by the schedule rules.

“While both parties have made threats about punishing either the candidates or the state itself in awarding delegates, it seems unlikely that either party can afford to spurn Florida’s millions of voters,” said Florida campaign media consultant Ron Sachs.

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