Politics & Government

Florida pulls plug on proposed primary do-over

WASHINGTON — Setting the stage for a contentious fight well into the summer, Florida Democrats gave up Monday on redoing their Jan. 29 presidential primary — leaving it to the national party or rivals Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to hammer out a solution.

Florida Democrats, who'd already closed the door on a full-scale conventional election or caucuses, scrapped the controversial vote-by-mail primary they'd proposed less than a week ago after thousands of Democrats objected.

"We spent the weekend reviewing your messages, and while your reasons vary widely, the consensus is clear: Florida doesn't want to vote again. So we won't,'' Florida Democratic Party chairwoman Karen Thurman said Monday in an e-mail sent to Florida Democrats.

The move came as Michigan Democrats inched closer to resolving their outsider status by staging a privately funded, state-administered do-over primary, leaving Florida as possibly the only state that won't weigh in on the most competitive presidential contest in decades.

The failure of Florida to come up with another means for selecting delegates augurs a continued standoff over its delegates and, perhaps, if neither candidate can clinch the nomination, a divisive floor fight at the convention itself over whether to seat the delegates based on the Jan. 29 results.

Even intervention of the rules and bylaws committee of the Democratic National Committee is likely to be fractious. The committee leans toward Clinton, with 15 of the 30 members supporting her, while six support Obama. Nine have not taken sides.

The DNC stripped both states of delegates last summer for scheduling their primaries in January, earlier than party rules allowed.

DNC chairman Howard Dean, who has been insistent that Florida and Michigan's delegates would not be seated based on the January votes, offered no comment on Monday.

But Clinton, who trails Obama in delegates, has been pressing to have the Florida and Michigan delegates seated, saying that she won both primaries. In Florida, where no candidates campaigned, Clinton won 49.8 percent of the vote, to Obama's 32.9 percent. In Michigan, where Obama wasn't on the ballot, she won 55.28 percent; uncommitted won 40 percent.

Clinton's campaign Monday said Florida's decision "brings us no closer to counting the votes of the nearly 1.7 million people who voted in January'' and called on Obama's campaign to share its belief "that Florida's voters must be counted and cannot be disenfranchised.''

Obama's campaign said it hoped "that all parties can agree on a fair seating of the Florida delegates so that Florida can participate in the Democratic Convention.''

Though a number of states have yet to vote, including Pennsylvania on April 22, predictions are that neither candidate will win enough delegates to clinch the nomination.

That's likely to set the stage for a battle over the delegates that many fear will leave Democrats so divided that it will make it hard for them to win the White House in November.

Thurman, however, sought to play down the differences.

"We must stick together as Democrats,'' she said. "The stakes are too high and the opportunities too great.''

One potential solution: Clinton supporter Sen. Bill Nelson has proposed seating just half the state's delegates based on the Jan. 29 vote, though Clinton's campaign over the weekend seemed to dismiss the suggestion.

Thurman said the decision to scrap what would have been Florida's first-ever vote-by-mail election, "doesn't mean that Democrats are giving up on Florida voters.'' She said the party will likely take its case to the DNC's rules and bylaws committee, which she said is scheduled to meet in April.

The DNC, however, said there is no April meeting. The committee is meeting by phone next week, but DNC officials said neither Florida nor Michigan is on the agenda.

DNC member Jon Ausman of Tallahassee already has filed an appeal, saying the DNC doesn't have the authority to bar the state's superdelegates and arguing that the committee exceeded its authority when it stripped the state of all its delegates.

By turning to the committee, Florida Democrats are looking for mercy from the same group that stripped the state of its delegates in late August. Of its 30 members, only attorney Allan Katz of Tallahassee voted against taking Florida's delegates.

But the vote came at a time when no one expected that the race would be so close and amount to a state-by-state fight for every delegate. Now that the race has come down to the wire, the committee's deliberations will undoubtedly be viewed in terms of which candidate will be helped or hurt by its verdict.

"The problem is, what hat are you wearing when you're up there on the committee?'' asked Katz, who supports Obama. "You have to transcend that.''

Katz is recommending that the committee give Florida its delegates back — but award half to Clinton and half to Obama. Florida activists would be allowed to participate in the convention, but the ground rules for the primaries wouldn't be changed after the fact.

"Fifty-fifty is the way to do it, and I don't think there's any other fair conclusion,'' Katz said. "Everyone agreed — Hillary Clinton agreed, Barack Obama agreed — that we weren't selecting delegates in the Jan. 29 election. So how can we do that now?''

Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, who is neutral in the race, said she was "disappointed'' that the state party did not come up with a plan to abide by the national party's rules.

But she added that the committee should address Florida's plight as soon as possible — and certainly before the convention in August.

"I don't what's viable given that there's no plan,'' she said. "We have to comply with the rules that 48 other states complied with.''

In Michigan, the Associated Press reported that legislative leaders were reviewing a measure to stage a do-over Democratic presidential primary there.

An aide to Clinton called on Obama's campaign to support the second Michigan primary.

"If Barack Obama's campaign stands in the way of a new vote, he will be putting his own political interests ahead of the people of Michigan,'' said Harold Ickes, who was on the DNC rules committee last summer that voted to penalize the two states.

A spokesman for Obama's campaign accused Clinton — who signed the pledge to not campaign in the states — of "cynically trying to change the rules at the 11th hour for her own benefit.''

Spokesman Tommy Vietor said the campaign received a "very complex proposal'' for the re-vote and was reviewing it.

State party officials had believed the mail-in primary was their best shot at meeting national party rules and seeing that the state's votes count in the presidential nominating contest. But the proposal was hammered from the start.

Before it was even released, all nine members of the state's Democratic House delegation in Washington panned voting by mail. Obama, whose campaign had raised questions about the reliability of mail-in elections, told reporters the "concerns about a mail-in system are not unique to us.'' And the Clinton campaign, which has pushed for a Florida re-vote, signaled that it would prefer a state-run conventional primary over a mail-in vote. But state party officials said the cost of a traditional primary — at least $25 million — ruled it out.

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