WASHINGTON — The Democratic National Committee stripped Florida of its national convention delegates on Saturday, rendering the state's Democratic presidential primary officially meaningless and delivering a stern message to states looking to bump up their presidential primaries.
The move, which would become effective in 30 days unless Florida Democrats reach a compromise with the national party, came after the committee found that the Republican-dominated state legislature had violated party rules by scheduling primary balloting for Jan. 29. Party rules require that only certain primaries be held before Feb. 5.
How the decision will affect the selection of the party's presidential candidate was uncertain. Florida ordinarily would have 210 delegates to the party's national convention. But the last Democratic presidential nominating contest that was still undecided when the party's national convention was convened was 27 years ago, when then President Jimmy Carter faced a challenge from Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
The biggest impact may be on Democratic candidates' decisions whether to campaign in Florida, the nation's fourth largest state.
With no delegates at stake, the primary would become an essentially meaningless "beauty contest,'' and candidates might prefer to spend their time and money in states that could affect the outcome of a close race.
Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who was campaigning in South Florida Saturday, told McClatchy Newspapers that he'd still campaign in Florida, but that a delegate-less primary would be a "consideration'' in deciding how much time to spend in the state.
Mo Elliethee, a spokesman for Sen. Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner in most Florida polls, noted that "the process is still ongoing and we hope that the DNC and the state party can figure out a resolution that works for everyone." He said the campaign "has always said we intend to compete in any state that holds a primary or a caucus."
Florida Democrats also expressed concern that a meaningless primary would depress voter turnout and hurt the party's efforts to defeat a property tax referendum to be voted on the same day.
Only one member of the DNC rules committee, Allan Katz of Florida, voted against the sanctions. Committee members said they needed to deal with Florida harshly to impose order on what is promising to be an unruly primary season.
"Are we going to uphold the rules or just have open season on the entire process?" DNC rules committee co-chairwoman Alexis Herman said after the vote. "Florida's a very important state to the democratic process, but we have 49 other states that we also have to take into consideration."
Florida Democrats pleaded with the committee for "mercy," saying they were
steam-rolled by a Republican majority in the Legislature that was intent on moving the
presidential primary to Jan. 29 — even if it meant trampling both party's calendars.
"Florida Democrats did what they could, but in the end we failed," said Florida
Democratic Party chairwoman Karen Thurman.
The Republican National Committee, which also limits primaries before Feb. 5, has threatened to cut Florida's delegate count by half if the primary date isn't changed. State party officials have until Sept. 4 to argue their case before the RNC.
The dispute put the national Democratic Party in the awkward position of waging a family feud with one of the biggest and fastest growing prizes in the presidential race. Florida is a major source of campaign contributions and its voters decided who won the White House in 2000 by 537 votes.
The feud also signals major problems with the crowded presidential calendar as states jockey for position and threaten to move the voting into early January — or even 2007.
Democratic Party rules allow only Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina to hold primaries before Feb. 5, when nearly two dozen other states are voting. But Michigan is also looking to defy the party, with its Senate voting this week to move its primary up to Jan. 15.
With that defiance in mind, the committee took a hard line. Several members suggested state Democrats should have fought harder against the Republican-led charge to move up the primary date.
Florida Democrats argued that they were outnumbered 2 to 1 in the Legislature and that Republicans made it impossible for Democrats to vote against the measure by including language requiring paper voting machine trails in the bill.
But seconds after Thurman and Florida party members Jon Ausman and Terri Brady wrapped up their plea, committee member Ralph Dawson of New York moved to strip the state of all its delegates.
Committee members said they didn't have a choice: they warned of opening "the doors to chaos'' if they didn't hold the line against rogue states looking to move up their
primaries and influence the race.
"I understand how states crave to be first, how they're envious of Iowa and New
Hampshire," said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, who voted to strip the state of delegates. "I understand you'd like to get the candidates down to raise your issues, fill the barns. But the truth is, we have a process."
Herman noted the committee sought to add geographic and racial diversity to the
voting calendar and asked states several years ago to apply to be early voting states. Florida didn't apply.
The national party has suggested that Florida could avoid the penalties by staging its own election, called a caucus, after Feb. 5. The national party said it would spend about $800,000 toward such a vote.
But Florida officials said they fear that millions of Florida Democrats wouldn't get
a chance to vote, including those who vote absentee.
Thurman said she's still hoping for a compromise before the party is officially penalized. But she acknowledged that the many in the party oppose alternatives.
"I think it's going to be a difficult discussion," she said.