- Associated Press - Saturday, October 31, 2015

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) - Hillary Rodham Clinton was a no-show Saturday. Ditto Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

The Florida Democratic Party held a weekend convention to rally supporters for next year’s election without the benefit of a presidential candidate actually showing up. Sure, party activists could pose with life-size cardboard cutouts of Clinton and Sanders, but Clinton was in South Carolina on Saturday and Sanders was in New Hampshire - two of the first four states in the nominating process.

While Florida will play a major role in deciding the presidency, it will have far less influence in choosing the Democratic nominee. And Democratic delegates understand that.

“The first four states are the most important, and I don’t consider it any slight politically whatsoever,” said Mitch Ceasar, a Democratic National Committee member from Broward County. “I had no expectation either of them would be here. My expectations were met.”

But University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus said it’s a mistake for the candidates to skip the event, considering how important Florida will be in the general election. Florida is the largest state in the country that could swing either way in the presidential election. MacManus noted Florida also has some of the party’s biggest donors, so Clinton or Sanders are missing out on fundraising opportunities, publicity and winning the favor of Democrats who might eventually volunteer for a campaign in a key state.

“At this time of year Florida has more non-stop flights than any other time and to take two hours out of your day would reap huge benefits, both financial and from a visual perspective,” she said. “These Democrats would have just been ecstatic and probably opened up their wallets, their hearts and everything else if either one of these candidates had been here.”

By contrast, the Republican Party of Florida is holding a similar event in two weeks just miles away and 12 presidential candidates are scheduled to speak. And Republicans are gleeful that they’ll get international attention for their event while the Democrats are relying on Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill as their keynote speaker.

“Fla Dems: Zero candidates, Zero momentum,” said a state GOP press release that poked fun at the Democrats.

Delegates will hear from some candidates - Pam Keith, U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson and U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, who are seeking the Senate seat Republican Marco Rubio is giving up to run for president.

And once Democrats have a nominee, expect him or her to accept the next invitation to Florida, especially if it means competing against two Florida Republicans also seeking the presidency, former Gov. Jeb Bush or Sen. Marco Rubio.

“After the primary, then you’ll see her a lot,” said former state Rep. Joe Gibbons, who is supporting Clinton. “You absolutely have to win Florida. And if by chance you have Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio on the ticket, you ‘ve got to really be down here.”

McCaskill was well received by the crowd of 950. She also stressed how important Florida is next year, pointing to the 2000 election, when it took five weeks to learn George W. Bush defeated Vice President Al Gore by 537 votes to earn the presidency.

“In case you guys don’t know it, you’re special,” McCaskill said. “You’re state will always be one of the most important state in our national elections … You had a front row seat to the ultimate cliffhanger.”

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