Primary fight may give edge to Florida


Published: Sunday, January 18, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 17, 2004 at 11:06 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE - If no clear leader emerges from the crowded field of Democratic presidential candidates in the Iowa caucuses on Monday and next week's New Hampshire primary, Florida may be the ultimate winner.

Political analysts say a protracted, muddled nomination fight could increase the chances that Florida's March 9 primary - which follows primary elections and caucuses in 29 other states - may assume a more relevant role in this year's Democratic campaign.

"If it's not a quick knockdown here, you really could see this thing have some legs and get into Florida," said Bob Doyle, a Washington, D.C.-based Democratic political consultant.

Polls show the nomination process tightening in Iowa, where voters will pick a candidate in a series of caucuses around the state on Monday, and in New Hampshire, where a primary vote occurs Jan. 27.

Florida Democrats won't vote until March 9, a time when the fate of more than half of the 4,322 delegates at stake will have been decided. A successful candidate needs to claim a majority of the delegates to win the party's nomination at its convention, scheduled for late July in Boston.

Florida Republicans, who have already declared President George W. Bush as their nominee, won't have a primary.

Florida Democratic Party Chairman Scott Maddox said if a strong frontrunner emerges from the field in Iowa and New Hampshire, he expects the nomination process to be "far along towards a decision" prior to Florida's primary.

But he said a less decisive outcome could increase Florida's significance, despite its late position in the primary process.

"If the candidates split those two early states, we could very well still be in play on March 9," Maddox said.

Other key Democrats say they sense a race, which once seemed to be dominated by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, becoming more complicated.

"If you had spoken to me a week ago, I would have said Florida is not in play," said state Rep. Ron Greenstein, D-Coconut Creek. "But the closure of everything is making it more interesting."

Last week, Greenstein said he signed on to the steering committee of Gen. Wesley K. Clark. And Greenstein said it was his sense that Clark and Dean were currently the strongest candidates in southeast Florida, a pivotal region that holds roughly a third of the state's Democratic voters.

Maddox, the state party leader, said it's too early to tap a Florida frontrunner.

"Right now, I think it's wide open," Maddox said. "All of the candidates have been here to Florida, but they have not made it a priority."

Others said they remain skeptical about Florida having any real influence on this year's nominating process.

"Florida is a little bit too far down the road, at the back of the pack, for it really to have much impact," said Barney Bishop, a Tallahassee lobbyist and former executive director of the state party.

Bishop said Florida, which once had a relatively early primary, has seen its nomination influence wane, as other states have leapfrogged it.

"We were early in the pack until they started moving everything up," he said.

Other analysts say not only Florida, but the South in general, may have less influence in this nominating process this year.

"This is really a primary season that advantages northeastern and midwestern candidates," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa. She noted only four southern states will vote before Florida, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi hold primaries on March 9.

Florida, which has held its presidential primary on the second Tuesday in March since 1971, was once part of the "Super Tuesday" primary, which was created in 1988 and featured 16 southern states voting together.

But that southern coalition fell apart, as more states sought to have an earlier position in the primary process.

MacManus and others assert Florida, as the nation's fourth largest state, is more representative of the country as a whole and should have a more prominent position in the primaries.

"Florida is the best microcosm of America, both politically and demographically," MacManus said.

"But right now we just don't have a voice unless there is a drawn-out process."

Republicans, who control the Legislature, have shown little interest in recent years in moving the primary date since their party's nominee was decided.

The last serious effort to move the primary occurred in 1999, when GOP leaders suggested moving up the date by a week, but the legislation failed to pass.

Maddox, the state Democratic chairman, said regardless of the role Florida may play in the primaries, he believes the state that decided the outcome of the 2000 presidential race will play an equally prominent role this year.

"We are the general election battleground state," Maddox said.

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