For Obama and Clinton, it's back to the future in Florida

Obama visits Wednesday to mend fences for the fall, while Clinton points to her Jan. 29 primary win.

Chris Carlson/ap
Fight to the finish: Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton (not shown) are scheduled to be in Florida Wednesday. The state's Jan. 29 primary was nullified by the Democratic Party.
Elise Amendola/ap
Fight to the finish: Barack Obama (not shown) and Hillary Rodham Clinton are scheduled to be in Florida Wednesday. The state's Jan. 29 primary was nullified by the Democratic Party.

Barack Obama's campaign swing through Florida this week is his first since last year, and local newspapers have billed it as nothing short of a peacemaking tour: a chance to mend ties with Democrats still sore that their primary, favoring Hillary Rodham Clinton, was nullified by the national party.

But if Senator Obama is hoping Florida voters forgive and forget, Senator Clinton made clear Monday night that she has other plans. Her campaign said she will show up to campaign in Florida on the same day – Wednesday – as Obama.

That forces him to share the spotlight with the Democrat who trounced him there in January. It reminds party leaders that she was the stronger candidate in the important swing state and throws up another hurdle as Obama tries to pivot toward the general election.

"Obama's hope was to assuage Floridians, that although their votes are not being counted directly, they were of great value to the Democratic Party and much loved by him," says Cal Jillson, a political analyst at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. The timing of Clinton's visit "has got to be a major source of heartburn for the Obama campaign."

With Clinton's road to the nomination now all but closed off by Obama's lead in delegates, a decision to count Florida's Jan. 29 primary remains her best chance to slow – though in no way overtake – Obama.

On May 31, a rules panel of the Democratic National Committee is expected to decide whether, and how, to seat convention delegates from Florida and Michigan, whose primaries were held earlier than party rules allow. Clinton won both states. But in deference to the rules neither candidate campaigned in them and Obama withdrew his name from the Michigan ballot.

If the candidates' dueling visits this week foster a sense that Florida Democrats are too disaffected to unify, it could boost pressure on the rules panel to seat the state's delegates in proportion to the popular vote. The Obama campaign has resisted such a plan.

Clinton's Florida piggyback visit comes just as Obama was hoping to savor another milestone in his march toward the nomination: The primaries in Oregon and Kentucky Tuesday were expected to give him a majority of pledged delegates nationally.

The campaign events Wednesday – Obama in Tampa and Clinton in South Florida – will create the unusual spectacle of a nomination fight in a state whose primary took place nearly four months earlier.

"Florida will be the first state to have a campaign after the election," quipped Bill Carrick, an unaffiliated Democratic strategist. "It could be a new HBO special."

Obama plans to be in Florida through the end of the week, with visits to a synagogue in Boca Raton and with a Cuban-American group in Miami, as well as a few fundraisers. Clinton had not released her schedule past Wednesday. But according to her website, her supporters have organized several of their own events to picket Obama's visit.

"Protest Obama coming to Florida when he does not even recognize our right to vote!" reads the listing for an event outside an Obama fundraiser in Hollywood, Fla., Thursday. "Bring Signs!"

The disputed 2000 presidential election, when Al Gore lost to George W. Bush by 543 Florida votes, has given Florida a kind of immortality as a make-or-break state for presidential candidates. As if to underscore the point, the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, visited Tuesday.

Despite Obama's lead of nearly 200 delegates nationally, Clinton contended Monday that the race was "nowhere near over." In her latest take on nomination math, she said that the states she won together had more electoral votes – the yardstick for the general election – than those Obama had won. She also argued that if Florida and Michigan were included, she would be ahead in the popular vote.

"I'm going to make my case and I'm going to make it until I'm the nominee and we're not going to have one today and we're not going to have one tomorrow and we're not going to have one the next day," she said at a campaign stop in Maysville, Ky.

In Florida's Jan. 29 primary, Clinton won 50 percent of the vote, to Obama's 33 percent, in a state whose demographics – older, with large Latino and Jewish populations – tended to favor her.

How Florida would lean in November remains an open question. In a Quinnipiac University poll of Florida voters late last month, Clinton led Senator McCain 49 percent to 41 percent. Obama and McCain were in a statistical tie.

The timing of Clinton's Florida trip carries political risks, says Dr. Jillson. Though it could remind the national party of her strong finish in a key swing state, it could backfire if she is seen as sowing division.

"There are dangers to Obama if he continues to be stymied as he turns to face McCain," Jillson says. "There are dangers to Clinton because the rest of the party may begin to see her as a spoiler, rather than a fighter unwilling to give up."

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