Inside the numbers: Florida

Posted: Feb 24, 2004 12:00 AM

ATLANTA -- Will the Democrats have a deadlocked national convention this summer? In fact, such a scenario is probably just a political junkie's dream. But here are a few things along those lines to consider:

The past month has taught us that North Carolina's John Edwards has obvious appeal to independent and undecided voters, especially those who wait until the eleventh hour to make up their minds. John Kerry's success is commonly ascribed to his believed electability vs. President Bush, while Edwards' stronger-than-expected showings are commonly attributed to his energy and general likeability. That likeability is a plus, but it doesn't necessarily translate into electability in the bruising general election fight to come.

So how can Edwards convert his charisma into his party's nomination for president? The answer may be found in the Florida primary, where a wild crapshoot, last-second Hail-Mary pass by the Edwards campaign might be his best hope for a momentum-changing event. To get that chance, of course, Edwards must first win at least one of the 10 Super Tuesday primaries on March 2. If he doesn't, Florida probably won't matter.

Edwards' best shot on Super Tuesday could be Georgia, where former Democratic Governor Roy Barnes is furiously campaigning on Edwards' behalf among key African-American groups in the state. Barnes is responsible for removing the prominent display of the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag, for which he was awarded the prestigious John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award last year. His influence among blacks could create the possibility of an Edwards victory.

Ohio offers additional hope for Edwards. It's a Rust Belt state where moderate Democrats could play a key role.

Because the Democratic Party awards convention delegates to the candidates proportionate to the percentage of the votes received in the primaries -- unlike the Republicans and their winner-take-all system -- both Kerry and Edwards will win at least a reasonable number of delegates on Super Tuesday. When it's done, Kerry will maintain his substantial lead, but Edwards possibly could fare well enough in at least one or two states to set the scene for a high-profile "electability test" in the March 9 Florida primary.

If so, the Edwards camp could argue that no Democrat can possibly hope to defeat President Bush if that candidate is unable to carry the Sunshine State's Democratic core. Why? Because a tight general election would again make Florida the potential swing state among the nation's biggest electoral prizes. Ralph Nader's decision to run as a third-party candidate only increases the chances of this being the case. Because New York and California are probably givens for the Democratic nominee, and Texas equally solid for Bush, Florida again will likely be the critical crown jewel in the presidential sweepstakes.

As a way to come from behind and win the Democratic nomination, this "Florida strategy" is a long shot for Edwards. Kerry has weathered recent political storms and clearly assumed the mantle of "nominee-in-waiting." But politics in recent years has taken many a wild turn. And while the national press generally has trouble accepting or even comprehending the viability of Deep South candidates for president, Edwards' clean record and fresh look seems to appeal to middle-of-the-road voters.

The last InsiderAdvantage poll of the race in Florida, conducted before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, showed neither Kerry nor Edwards with significant support. Things have obviously changed. But what remains significant from that survey was the indication that self-proclaimed independents that vote in Democratic primaries likely would gravitate toward candidates viewed as moderates. For them, Edwards might fit the bill.

If nothing else, a strong Edwards showing in the upcoming Southern primaries would likely create an unstoppable movement to see the senator become Kerry's vice-presidential running mate. After all, it's inconceivable that the Democrats can win the White House without carrying both Florida and at least one other large Southern state. While some pundits have written off the South to the GOP, those who know it well recognize that its legion of voters who consider themselves independent have and will again shuttle back and forth between the two major parties.

The good news for Bush is that these are the same voters in 2000 that either supported him or drifted in the other direction to vote for Nader. And in 2002, independents in Florida voted in significant numbers to re-elect the president's brother, Jeb, as governor.

There is little doubt this independent bloc will again decide the course our nation takes in November. The key deciding point will almost certainly be the state of the economy -- not as it is now, but on Election Day. For now, that gives hope to Edwards' candidacy, but a continually improving economy may supply the president with the margin he needs for victory.