MIAMI (Reuters) - Republican U.S. presidential candidates have swarmed through Florida looking for votes but a family squabble has kept Democratic rivals out of the state or reduced them to sneaking inside its borders.
As the fourth-most-populous state heads into its presidential primary election on Tuesday, Democrats hoping to unseat President George W. Bush’s Republican Party are betting that all will be forgiven in a dispute that stripped Florida Democrats of their voting clout.
“I believe that it absolutely will happen,” Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Thurman said. “Our voices do count and we’re going to be heard and we’re going to vote.”
In the labyrinthine process to choose party nominees for the November election, the national parties set the rules and decide who goes first in the state-by-state race. Florida jumped the queue by moving up its primary election to Jan. 29, hoping to have more of a say in the selection of candidates.
The Republican National Committee punished Florida by halving its allotment of delegates to its official nominating convention in September, to 57. But the Republican candidates have been all over Florida, in person and on television commercials and in advertisements stuffed into voters’ mailboxes.
The Democratic National Committee dealt a harsher penance, stripping the state of all 210 delegates to that party’s nominating convention in August. They also extracted a pledge from the candidates not to campaign in Florida, although the candidates are on the ballot for this Tuesday’s voting.
Delegates representing all 50 states and U.S. territories traditionally select a party’s nominees for president and vice president at the conventions.
Sen. Hillary Clinton, in an about-face last week, said she wants the Democratic delegates reinstated and counted in Florida and in Michigan, another earlier voting state where they were barred by the national party.
In those states, Clinton could stake a claim to nearly all the delegates to the nominating convention in question — more than 350.
Wasting no time seeking support in Florida, Clinton said on Sunday she would visit the state on Tuesday evening after the polls close.
In Florida, leaders of both state parties are confident the national parties will relent in order to avoid angering Florida voters whose support will be needed to win in November.
“There’s going to be an unwillingness there on the part of the candidates to alienate Florida by punishing it,” Florida Republican Party spokeswoman Erin VanSickle said.
“The common goal that we all have is electing a Democratic president and that will require us to go in united,” said Thurman, the state Democratic chairwoman.
In the meantime, Democratic candidates have stealthily visited the state for private fund-raisers, which the rules allow, and prominent Florida Democrats are pleading with the party to release them from the no-campaign pledge.
Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink said the ban serves no purpose “except to give the Republican Party a head start for the general election.”
Democratic candidate Barack Obama bought air time in a nationwide block on cable news channels CNN and MSNBC in a move criticized by rival Democrat Clinton as a violation of the pledge. Clinton aides said she would consider doing the same.
The flap likely will hurt Democratic turnout in Florida. In states that have already voted, Democrats turned out in greater proportion than Republicans.
In Florida, where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans, 325,000 Republicans have already cast early ballots or returned mail-in ballots, compared with 296,000 Democrats.