Florida Dems eager to vote despite candidates' boycott

What if they held a presidential primary and nobody campaigned?

Unthinkable as it may seem in this media-manipulated age, that's the situation developing in, of all places, Florida, a state that generally gets blanketed by candidates and their messages.

It's business as usual on the Republican side of the ballot, as GOP presidential candidates descend on the state.

The primary election is Jan. 29, yet Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards have no plans to appear in the state whose Electoral College votes decided the 2000 presidential election.

The boycott is the result of a fight over Florida's decision to move its primary date ahead of the party-approved calendar. As a result, the Democratic National Committee voted to strip the state of its delegates to this year's Democratic convention.

Most Florida Democratic elected officials are convinced the party will relent and seat the state's 210 delegates and 31 alternates, if only to avoid alienating activists in a state that will likely be key in November.

"You can't turn your back on 27 Electoral College votes," said Rep. Kendrick Meek, a Clinton supporter. "I agree," said Rep. Robert Wexler, who supports Obama.

Nonetheless, there are no campaign stops, no TV commercials, no campaign brochures in mailboxes. Supporters who want yard signs or bumper stickers must order them from national headquarters.

"I've never seen anything like this in my life," said Miami adman Sergio Bendixen. "I've been involved in politics since 1972."

Under the radar, however, there's activity. Earlier this week, Obama's campaign questioned whether two fundraisers that Clinton has scheduled for Jan. 27 in south Florida might turn into full-fledged campaign appearances. Democratic candidates are permitted to raise money in Florida, but not to stump there. All the Democrats have held fundraisers in the state.

Obama "is firm in his commitment to neither participate nor campaign in the Florida primary," a campaign memo said. "Its outcome has no bearing on the nomination contest."

Clinton's campaign said that the senator will "honor her commitment not to campaign in Florida" but accused Obama of dissing the Sunshine State. "It is disappointing to hear a major Democratic presidential candidate tell the voters of ANY state that their voices aren't important," Clinton's campaign memo said.

Obama's statement prompted Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Thurman to issue one of her own. Florida voters are "going to send a message to the nation that no one can ignore" by turning out to vote, she said.

Early voting in the nation's fourth-largest state began this week. The first returns indicate a strong turnout — perhaps fueled by a controversial property tax amendment that's also on the ballot. More than 36,000 Democrats went to the polls in the first two days of early voting and more than 53,000 had returned absentee ballots as of Tuesday.

Clinton and Obama supporters in Florida are mounting ad hoc efforts to get voters to the polls. Several members of Congress who have endorsed Clinton are putting their political organizations into action on her behalf, but they're emphatic that they have no connection with the national campaign. "I'm buying the coffee and doughnuts myself," Rep. Alcee Hastings said.

"We think our results will have a psychological effect," said Michelle Stiles, who said she's one of about 600 Obama supporters meeting weekly in Orlando. Stiles said members of her group are leafleting at early voting sites, knocking on doors and working the phones for Obama.

Lisa Walker, a businesswoman who is organizing for Obama in Deltona, said Floridians are enjoying the campaign that they're building themselves. "You know what?" she said. "I think it's more exciting."

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