Clinton-Obama battle makes its way to Fla.

ByFredreka Schouten, USA TODAY

TAMPA -- Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton took their fight for the Democratic presidential nomination to Florida on Wednesday, each with a different purpose as they assured neglected voters of their importance.

For Obama, the launch of his three-day swing through the state as he closes in on the nomination marked the first time he has stumped in Florida since signing a pledge nine months ago not to campaign here for the Jan. 29 primary. Florida and Michigan were stripped of their convention delegates for violating national party rules on primary scheduling.

"I know you guys have been holding down the fort," he told a roaring crowd of 15,000 at the St. Pete Times Forum, an arena in downtown in Tampa. "It's good to be back."

Clinton, meanwhile, said she would fight all the way to the party's Aug. 25-28 convention in Denver to ensure delegates are seated from Florida and Michigan if the states wanted her to take that step. A Democratic rules and bylaws panel meets May 31 to decide what happens to the 211 delegates from Florida and 156 from Michigan.

"Yes, I will. I will because I feel very strongly about this," Clinton said.

In an appearance in Boca Raton, Clinton compared the situation with Florida's delegates to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to stop a recount of Florida votes cast in the 2000 presidential race.

"For the people of Florida who voted in this primary, the notion of discounting their votes sounds way too much of the same," she said.

Obama is needs roughly 65 delegates to reach the 2,026 needed to win the nomination. Clinton, who won the Florida and Michigan primaries, has argued that the number needed to clinch should be increased to include delegates from those states.

Florida will be a key battleground in November: 27 electoral votes are at stake. Recent state polls show presumptive Republican nominee John McCain leads Obama in a head-to-head matchup, while Clinton leads McCain.

Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said the state's diverse electorate makes it fertile ground for Democrats in the fall campaign. "Floridians feel that it's about time that candidates went here," she said. "They want to hear that their votes count."

Obama campaign spokesman Josh Earnest acknowledged that Obama has some ground to make up. "Republicans had a competitive primary here and had the opportunity to campaign. We're pleased to have that chance, starting today."

For his part, Obama again took aim at McCain and his record on ethics and political reform. Obama pointed to a bill McCain introduced in 1996 that would have barred campaigns from hiring lobbyists. It never became law.

"John McCain then would be pretty disappointed with John McCain now because he has hired some of the biggest lobbyists in Washington to run his campaign," Obama said.

Obama has seized on McCain's ties to lobbyists to challenge the Arizona senator on who can best change the culture of Washington. McCain's campaign has dismissed the criticism, saying the issue doesn't matter to most voters.

"I think the American people do care about it," Obama countered in Tampa.

Highlighting the issue poses some risks for Obama. The Illinois senator boasts that he doesn't take money from federal lobbyists or political action committees, but he does accept money and fundraising help from state lobbyists. Federal lobbyists also are among the ranks of his unpaid advisers.

McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said: "Despite his own campaign's ties to lobbyists, nothing comes between Barack Obama and a partisan political attack."

Casey Wolf, who attended the Tampa rally wearing a homemade "Jewish Mama for Obama" T-shirt, said "most Americans don't care" about lobbyists' ties to politicians. "I think people care right now more about the cost of food and gas."

"I'm kind of cynical," said the 32-year-old preschool teacher from Venice, Fla. "But I'm an adult. I know that to rise to the top, you have to shake hands and form alliances with people who are less than savory."

McCain is planning to host three men often mentioned as possible running mates at his Sedona, Ariz., cabin for Memorial Day. Former presidential rival Mitt Romney; Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, an early McCain backer; and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal have been invited.

"It's purely social," said Mark Salter, a McCain adviser.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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