Early pri­mary roils Florida Democrats; na­tional party penal­ties loom

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Don­ald Lam­bro

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 two weeks ago.

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 cau- cus 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.

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