GOP looks for edge in early primaries

Donald Lambro

9/13/2007 12:01:00 AM - Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Republicans are having a field day in Michigan and Florida, accusing the Democrats' presidential front-runners of planning to boycott the states' early primaries next January.

Incredibly, this is what the Democratic National Committee wants its presidential contenders to do, and Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, among others, have pledged to do just that to abide by party rules that threaten to strip them of their delegates if they campaign in either contest. Taking full advantage of the political primary mess in which Democrats find themselves, Republican Party officials assured voters last week that all of its presidential hopefuls will actively campaign in the Michigan primary (Jan. 15) and the Florida primary (Jan. 29).

"We have had conversations with all the Republican presidential campaigns, and they will continue to campaign here," said Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis.

"The Democrats are actually asking their candidates to boycott the primary and not campaign here, or they will take away 100 percent of their delegates in the state," Anuzis told me. "Our rules say we will lose 50 percent of our delegates, but nobody in our party is talking about boycotting anything. They are coming to campaign."

In Florida, Republican Chairman Jim Greer, who has been in touch with all of the candidates, told me they, too, will fully campaign in the state. "We are approaching the primary from a welcome standpoint, while it appears the Democrats are running from it," he said.

Assurances by top advisers to the Republican candidates underscored their plans that, no matter what the rules say about primary dates, there will be no boycotting of any primary in their party.

"We're going to continue to campaign aggressively in (both) these states," said Maria Comella, a representative for Rudy Giuliani.

The GOP's primary-calendar rules, just like the Democrats', prohibit any primary from being held before Feb. 5, outside of the contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. But the GOP-run legislature in Florida moved its primary up early last month, defying the party's rules, and the Michigan legislature, with the support of both parties, did likewise last week.

When Democrats in both states prepared to participate in the primaries, the DNC moved to strip them of all convention delegates if their candidates decided to campaign there. Florida Democrats, faced with the untenable disaster of boycotting their state's primary, threatened to take the DNC to court for "disenfranchising" Democratic voters.

Then last week, Democratic officials seemed to soften their rhetoric in a bid to find a way out of the impasse after six of its candidates pledged not to campaign in either primary contest.

But the written statement by Clinton, and maybe some of the others, may not be worth the paper it's printed on, Democrats told me.

First, pledge or no pledge, all of the Democratic candidates' names will be on the statewide primary ballots.

Second, both Clinton and Obama, the front-runners, seem to be running campaigns in both states. They have ground organizations there, as well as staff. They have scheduled fund-raisers in Florida this month and later this year. All participated in a Spanish-language broadcast forum in Miami Sunday on Univision, the Hispanic/Latino TV network.

Initially, Clinton was not eager to agree to at least tacitly abide by DNC rules forbidding any campaigning in the two states. Both are mega-states that could decide the outcome of the 2008 presidential election, and any Democrats who sit out the primary would do so at their peril.

Knowledgeable Democrats told me that she was the last to sign on to the pledge after carefully weighing the pros and cons of such a decision. She did, after all, hold a huge lead in Florida over all her rivals, and led in Michigan, too. Her organizations in both states would be working for her, and at this point she was justifiably confident she would win the "beauty contest" primaries, giving her a boost going into the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday contests that would all but decide next year's nominee.

Nevertheless, the GOP in both states were playing up the Democrats' embarrassing rules dilemma, and there were reports of growing alienation in the party's base over the candidates' absence. "Florida Democrats are seeing and hearing less from their presidential candidates," the Tampa Tribune reported. "It's a big mistake what they've done to Florida, and I'm not going to assist them," Democratic candidate Wayne Hogan told the Orlando Sentinel as he canceled a party fund-raiser last week.

In the meantime, Republicans in both states are rubbing their hands with glee, hoping that the spectacle of their candidates dominating the two primaries and the Democrats seen as boycotting them will give the GOP an edge in the general-election battle to come.

"Michigan is the home of the AFL-CIO, UAW and the Teamsters, and a large African-American community. Both Michigan and Florida are key fund-raising states for the Democrats," Anuzis told me. "So they are playing a very high-risk game of Russian roulette."