Florida vs. the DNC

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The Democratic National Committee, with a near-unanimous vote by its rules committee, has taken a hard line against Florida’s plans for an extra-early presidential primary, voting to strip it of all of its delegates if it goes ahead with a Jan. 29 date. The move shocked the state party, which now has 30 days to come up with an alternative plan that passes muster with the national party. One possibility would be a “beauty contest” on that date, in which the winner would walk away with bragging rights and good headlines, but no delegates. The state may also start its balloting early, so that candidates will be forced to give it time and attention, but delay counting the votes until after the Feb. 5 “window” opens.

The fear, as we have talked about here before, is that if Florida goes ahead with the Jan. 29 primary that has been approved by its GOP-controlled legislature, other big states–Michigan is already moving in that direction–would leap ahead as well. That could force Iowa and New Hampshire to move into 2007.

DNC sources tell me that Florida was surprised by the harshness of the sanction, having expected to lose only 50% of its pledged delegates. No one was taking that threat particularly seriously, and the state knew it might even be able to win those delegates back in a floor fight at the convention. The motion to impose the harsher measure was made by Ralph Dawson, a lawyer who grew up in South Carolina, the state that had the most to lose from Florida’s move. (Dawson, who has not yet endorsed a presidential candidate, was DNC Chairman Howard Dean’s roommate at Yale, as well as a former student of Congressman Jim Clyburn, South Carolina’s most influential African-American politician.)

And what about the Republicans? Their rules were set at their 2004 convention, and require that if Florida goes ahead on January 29, it would lose half of its GOP delegates. However, that sanction hasn’t stopped the candidates from trooping down to the state–something the DNC no doubt took into account as it decided to take its more dramatic step.

The DNC may have put its finger in the dike for 2008, but everyone fully expects another stampede by states four years from now. The big states remain frustrated by the outsized influence of Iowa and New Hampshire, and pressure will continue to make their voices louder in the selection of the party nominees. Various fixes have been proposed, including a series of regional primaries with a rotating order of states. However, as one DNC member told me, that would take a difficult-to-engineer agreement on the part of state legistatures and secretaries of state. “The party is not able to fix this,” the committee member said. “The states have to fix this.”