Clinton seen as one to beat here
Published: Saturday, January 5, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 5, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.
TALLAHASSEE - The odds will be much tougher in Florida for Barack Obama to duplicate his historic victory in the Iowa Democratic presidential caucus.
While Obama may gain more momentum by winning other states before the Jan. 29 primary in Florida, strategists and pollsters say it will be difficult for the Illinois senator to overcome Hillary Clinton's lead in the state. But conversely, with Clinton finishing a disappointing third in Iowa, Florida may become a must-win state for the New York senator.
Complicating Obama's chances is the fact that Florida voters are not likely to get to see him in person, as he and the other Democrats continue to boycott the state, which has been punished by national Democratic leaders for moving up the date of its primary.
Independent polls have consistently given Clinton a lead of more than 20 percentage points over Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. A mid-December poll from Quinnipiac University had Clinton with 43 percent of the primary vote to Obama's 21 percent and Edwards' 19 percent.
Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida, said the boycott should help Clinton maintain that lead.
"I suspect Obama and Edwards would just have a hard time winning here because nobody has come down," Jewett said. "So basically initial impressions were set and nothing has changed it, unlike Iowa."
But Jewett said Obama's Iowa win has undermined the assertion that Clinton had a lock on the party's presidential nomination.
"Nothing changes the equation like an actual victory by somebody else," Jewett said.
Despite the Democratic boycott and based on the outcomes in the other early-voting states, Jewett said Florida could become a critical state for Clinton before heading into the 22 states that will hold primary contests on Feb. 5. "Florida is far more important to Hillary Clinton than to Obama right now," he said.
Dave Beattie, a Democratic consultant who is not working with any of the presidential campaigns and who has been an outspoken critic of the national party's decision to strip Florida of its delegates to the national convention, said Obama's ability to cut into Clinton's lead will have to rely on developments outside the state.
"Any movement is going to be based on national momentum obviously rather than direct activity in the state," Beattie said. "That's going to be a very interesting number to see what happens with momentum from other states and how does that translate into a state that the national party says doesn't count."
Beginning with the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, four more states - including Michigan, Nevada and South Carolina - will weigh in on the race before Floridians vote on Jan. 29. And political experts say the outcomes of those contests will impact Florida.
"The presidential primary is like a pinball machine. You have different balls, which represent candidates, bouncing off different cushions at different angles and that affects where they go next," said Peter Brown, the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
Based on the Iowa vote, Brown said, "obviously Obama will do better" in new Florida polls, although he still faces significant challenges here.
"Florida is not a particularly good state demographically for Sen. Obama," Brown said.
For one, Florida's electorate is older, which could offset Obama's popularity among younger voters and help Clinton, who is popular among older voters. In the Iowa caucus, Obama claimed 57 percent of the support from voters 29 years old and younger, who made up 22 percent of the caucus vote. In contrast, those younger voters only accounted for 10 percent of the vote in Florida's last statewide election in 2006.
"The senior vote should be a big plus for Clinton," said Jewett. He said those voters are "comfortable" with Clinton, while Obama's absence from Florida has prevented him from connecting with those voters. "They haven't learned anything about him," he said.
Obama, who has deliberately reached out to independent voters, also will be hurt in Florida because the state's "closed" primary system will limit the Jan. 29 vote to registered Democrats, unlike other states where independents and other non-Democrats are allowed to participate in the primaries.
But the Iowa vote showed Obama has several factors in his favor, including his surprising strength among women voters and his support from African-Americans, who account for one of every five Democrats in Florida.
The Quinnipiac poll showed Clinton carrying 47 percent of Florida's Democratic women to Obama's 21 percent in the December poll. But in Iowa, Obama won 35 percent of that vote to Clinton's 30 percent.
Jewett, though, said he believes Clinton will retain her popularity among women voters in the primary states, like Florida, where the electorate is much broader than states with caucuses that are populated by political activists.
Obama also had overwhelming support among the small bloc of African-American voters in Iowa. But strategists said the number was not big enough to predict what would happen in other states. They said a more critical benchmark of Obama's strength among black voters would come in contests like Michigan and South Carolina, which have larger minority communities.
In Florida, Clinton has actively lined up support from key black leaders, including Florida's three African-American congressional representatives.
Gayle Andrews, an African-American political consultant in Tallahassee who has raised money for Clinton, said she did not believe the Iowa vote would undermine Clinton's support in the state. She said while Obama "is an inspirational guy," there is doubt about his ability to win the general election.
"It would be crazy to abandon electability for something that is just not tangible at this point," she said.
African-American leaders who support Obama said they believe the Iowa vote gives a tremendous boost to the Illinois senator's prospects in Florida.
"I'm very optimistic now," said former state Sen. Les Miller of Tampa. "Hopefully this will open the eyes of a lot of people that he is a serious candidate."
Rep. Curtis Richardson of Tallahassee said the Iowa results will cause many Democrats "to take a second look" at Obama's campaign.
"The result in Iowa changes the whole dynamic of the campaign," Richardson said. "I think it debunks the criticism of him not having enough experience. I think what he does do is speak to America's hope for change and a better future."
But Richardson also said Obama might be doing better in Florida if he had spent more time in the state.
"The boycott has not helped any of the Democratic candidates," he said. "He is not as well known as Sen. Clinton. He would have benefited tremendously from an increased presence in Florida."
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