After enduring months of political exile, Florida Democrats giddily find themselves back in the center of the political universe as they head to a history-making convention.
Last winter, the presidential candidates snubbed the state's unseasonably early primary, shutting Florida voters out of an epic battle that saturated nearly every corner of the country. After Barack Obama claimed the nomination, Democrats wondered whether this virtual stranger to Florida who had focused on other battlegrounds would keep the state in play.
No more. The nominee-in-waiting lavished more money on television advertising in Florida than anywhere else in June and July, and launched what his campaign describes as an unprecedented ground game in the nation's fourth-largest state.
The final litmus test will come Sunday, one day before the convention festivities begin in Denver, when the national party takes up Obama's request for the state's once-scorned delegates to get full voting rights.
''I feel vindicated because I was always confident that in the end things would work out,'' said Democratic activist Larry Thorson, who campaigned for months with a cardboard cutout of Obama on street corners across Miami-Dade when the real candidate wouldn't come because the state had been stripped of its delegates.
Now Thorson's headed to Denver to blog for the Miami-Dade Democratic Party -- and see the walking-and-talking Illinois senator claim the nomination.
''I wish it had started six months ago in Florida, but there's been a real crescendo of activity,'' he said.
Still, there are signs that Obama's work has only begun. McCain has yet to run a single local television ad but holds a slim lead in some statewide polls. In contrast, Obama has spent more than $7 million on television advertising and scattered hundreds of staffers and volunteers across the state.
He also dispatched his ex-rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, to shore up support for him Thursday in South Florida, the Democratic stronghold of the state. A handful of Florida delegates, including some elected officials, plan to cast ballots for Clinton in Denver, though they say they're committed to electing Obama.
''She's made it abundantly clear this is about unity,'' said Ana Cruz, who led Clinton's volunteer group in Florida and now is working on Obama's campaign. ``We went through a family feud during the primary. The family reunion is in Denver.''
State House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber of Miami Beach says the party has moved past the rancor unleashed by the delegate debacle, despite the divisions it caused:
-- Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Alcee Hastings of Miramar took the national party to court.
-- Busloads of Floridians picketed in front of Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C.
-- Some Democrats swore off writing checks and threatened to change parties.
''It's as if it were ages ago,'' Gelber said. "All the things that made up our soap opera are not nearly as important as what will happen in November and beyond.''
Not everyone has moved on. Hastings is skipping the convention in protest and has donated his Denver hotel room to the state party.
Rep. Tim Mahoney of Palm Beach Gardens is staying home for a different reason: With three GOP rivals battling up to Tuesday's primary over which one is more conservative, he has distanced himself from Obama.
Not Hastings, who put a new twist on Obama's campaign mantra at a rally with Clinton in Tamarac last week. "It's not 'Yes we can,' it's 'Yes we must!' '' he cried.
Former Sen. Bob Graham, who will be attending his 10th convention since 1960, said Obama's charisma and message of change have gone a long way toward repairing the damage caused by infighting in Florida.
''I think that situation has created some scar tissue,'' said Graham, who stayed neutral in the primary. "The last part of the healing process will take part at the convention when they consider restoring our voting rights. That will, I hope, close the book and open people's eyes to the fact that this presidential selection process has become dysfunctional.''
Graham has long advocated an overhaul of the presidential primary system, which bestows outsized influence on the states at the front of the line. The national party plans to establish a group at the convention to recommend proposed reforms by 2010 -- in between the multimillion-dollar, four-day carnival of celebrity-studded parties, strategy sessions and closed-door receptions underwritten by big business.
Florida Democrats boast they are sending their most diverse delegation ever to the national convention: 23 percent are African American, 9 percent are Hispanic; the oldest, Tampa's Matilda Garcia, is 89; the youngest, Dayna Firth of Tampa, is 19.
The 211 delegates landed Denver hotel rooms at the last minute, but a few of Florida's elected officials scored prime speaking spots: Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, a registered independent and one-time Hillary Clinton supporter, will speak Monday. Obama's two Florida campaign co-chairs, Rep. Robert Wexler of Boca Raton and Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa, have been tapped to speak Wednesday.
For evidence of the Obama campaign's reach in Florida, look to Pahokee, a small, mostly black, usually forgotten town on the edge of Lake Okeechobee. The campaign opened an office there last week, which local officials say is the first by a presidential candidate.
''It's very unusual, and I've been here 50 years,'' said Mayor Wayne Whitaker. "Maybe somebody from the county will come by, but it's very unusual even for candidates from the county or the state.''
The outpost will test Obama's plan to mobilize record-setting numbers of African Americans and newly registered voters. Since the Jan. 29 primary, the party has increased its ranks by 252,600 voters.
''For years, we've been outgunned and outmanned,'' Gelber said. "This is such a huge unknown. We've never really had the time and money and energy. Even though it was late-starting, these guys are setting up everywhere.''
Florida Republicans say they are undaunted by Obama's Florida push. Though McCain's advertising and staffing is a fraction of Obama's, the GOP is banking on a well-oiled grass-roots network known for getting voters to the polls.
Obama's strategy for Florida partly relies on going after conservative Democrats, evangelical Christians, Cuban Americans and other groups that have favored the GOP.
Florida has voted for the Democratic ticket only twice since 1976.
''We're very upbeat about our prospects in 2008,'' Graham said. "If you made a list of everything the Democrats needed to take back the White House -- an unpopular Republican incumbent, an unpopular war, the economy in turmoil -- it's all there.''