Florida seeks meaningful primary

Wrangling over Florida's presidential nomination process is nothing new.

This political season, the uproar is over an Jan. 29 primary that has led Democrats to file a flurry of lawsuits and both national parties to slash the state's convention delegations.

But Florida's history of picking nominees for president is replete with earlier wrangling.

Iowa caucuses weren't a big factor 30 years ago — nor were Republicans in Florida — but T. Wayne Bailey, a Stetson University political science professor who has been a delegate to eight straight Democratic national conventions, recalls the New Hampshire primary got the state's power elite thinking.

"It wasn't thought of in terms of stealing ahead of Iowa or New Hampshire politically," he said. "We talked very openly about it being a tourism idea, about how people would see sunny Florida in contrast to the snow and cold of the North."

In that 1972 primary, Alabama Gov. George Wallace led the pack with 41.5% of the vote in Florida and remained a major contender until he was shot in Maryland three months later.

The state's primary was crucial for the first — and probably last — time four years later when Jimmy Carter beat the crippled Alabamian, effectively ending Wallace's national career.

These days, twice as many states have primaries and caucuses as had them in 1972.

Making Florida meaningful again was the reason for moving Florida's primary to Jan. 29. But when Florida officials defied rules of both national parties by jumping before Feb. 5, the GOP cut Florida's delegation from 114 votes to 57. The Democrats have spurned all 210 delegates and major Democratic candidates refuse to campaign in the state although they still raise money.

State GOP Chairman Jim Greer said the delegate penalties are worth it to amplify Florida's clout in the nominating process.

Even without delegates, Democratic state Chairwoman Karen Thurman said the headlines Jan. 30 will show which candidates won — and lost — in the first big, diverse, populous state on the road to the White House.

Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Alcee Hastings, both D-Fla., have filed a federal suit to make the DNC recognize the Florida delegation. Another group of voters sued the state, seeking to make the primary revert to March 11 — unless the Legislature holds a special session and chooses Feb. 5.

Greer is not suing but plans to appeal for seating of a full 114-vote delegation. Leaders of both parties hope that after more than 20 states vote Feb. 5, the nominees will be known and will want to unite the parties by giving Florida full delegations.

"This is a long process," he said.

But if two or maybe three candidates are in a dead heat in the summer, that might not happen — especially if a full Florida delegation could change the outcome.