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When members of the Republican Party of Florida gather at the posh Shingle Creek Resort in Orlando this month, high-profile presidential candidates will headline the two-day event: The slate includes Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney, and John McCain.
A week later, when members of the Democratic Party of Florida gather for their annual convention at Disney's Yacht and Beach Club in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., all the major Democratic presidential candidates will be conspicuously absent. Instead, the biggest draw of the weekend will likely be the 1970s rock band Orleans.
Such is the state of politics in the state of Florida: A showdown over primary dates has left Democrats abandoning the Florida campaign trail, and Republicans capitalizing on their absence. The political upheaval in the notorious swing state could have major implications for who wins the presidential nominations next fall, and who wins the presidency next November.
When Florida's state legislature voted to move up the state's primary to Jan. 29, 2008, the national parties balked, saying the early date violated party rules. (Both national parties have rules restricting most states from holding primaries before Feb. 5, but at least four other states are holding early primaries as well.)
The Republican National Committee (RNC) announced it would strip states violating the rules of half their nominating delegates at the party's national convention next year. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) was more severe: The party announced it would strip violating states of all their delegates at the convention next fall.
For Florida, that's a huge blow: With 210 nominating delegates, the state's Democratic Party has the fourth-largest number of delegates in the nation. When the DNC stripped the state's party of its delegates, Democratic presidential candidates decided to shun Florida as well: Nearly every Democratic candidate signed a pledge not to campaign in the state ahead of the primaries, saying Florida should follow party rules. The pledge contained one exception: private fundraisers.
Florida Democrats aren't budging, and insist they ought to be heard early in the primary process: The state's party officials point to Florida's large number of nominating delegates and the state's importance in general elections. They also say Florida's diverse population offers a better representation of more voters than the more homogenous populations in early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire.
State officials also insist that the DNC's actions won't squelch Florida's influence, saying they will ultimately retain their seats at the convention. To that end, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, both Democrats, recently filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing that the DNC's sanctions against Florida violate the U.S. Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act.
But even if the controversy in Florida doesn't ultimately affect the outcome of who wins the Democratic nomination, it could affect the strength of the Democratic Party at a crucial moment before the general election.
Sharon Stroschein, a member of the DNC rules committee that voted to strip Florida's delegates, acknowledged the possible fracture: "The last thing we want is Democrats not all coming together to elect our Democratic president," she told the St. Petersburg Times. "But somebody has to crack the whip."
Other Democrats are concerned about the controversy's effect on the general election. With 27 electoral votes, Florida has the fourth-largest number of electoral votes in the nation, making it a critical state to capture in general elections.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) lamented the DNC's sanctions against Florida and the Democratic candidates' decision to ignore the swing state before the primaries. "This is the classic definition of cutting your nose off to spite your face," she said. "Yes, there are maps showing you can win the presidency without Florida, but why would you want to start out that way?"
Republicans candidates aren't starting out that way. Despite the RNC's decision to strip Florida Republicans of half their voting delegates, Republican presidential candidates are campaigning heavily in the state, and taking advantage of the Democrat-free zone.
Scott Maddox, a former chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, told The Herald Tribune that the Republican candidates' strategy was wiser than that of Democrats: "They've handled it so much better."
Last month, Florida's GOP sent mailers to Democratic voters, asking: "Has being a Florida Democrat brought you to tears? You're not alone." The mailing included a voter registration form for Democrats to switch their party affiliation. State GOP officials say they will keep reminding Democratic and independent voters that Democratic presidential candidates boycotted the state, except when raising funds.
In the meantime, Democratic presidential candidates' trips to Florida to raise cash can become awkward. When Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) faced local reporters on his way to a fundraiser in St. Petersburg, Fla., last month, he refused to answer questions, saying: "I'm not allowed to talk to the press, guys."
The roads most traveled
Democratic presidential candidates may be ignoring Florida for the moment, but they're maintaining frantic schedules in other key states. So are Republicans. Here's a glance at states to watch with early primaries and caucuses.
Iowa: Iowa is currently scheduled to hold its caucuses on Jan. 14, but officials may move the date to Jan. 3 in order to maintain Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucus position. (Wyoming recently moved its Republican caucus to Jan. 5, throwing Iowa's original schedule into question.)
Presidential candidates have visited Iowa more than 1,300 times since January. In general elections, the state typically goes to the Democratic candidate, but President George W. Bush captured Iowa in 2004.
New Hampshire: New Hampshire typically holds the first primary in the nation, but hasn't yet announced the date of its 2008 contest. Officials say they are waiting for the shifting primary calendar to settle before announcing the final date.
Independents outnumber Republicans and Democrats in the state. Bush won the state in 2000. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) won in 2004.
Michigan: Michigan threw next year's primary schedule into confusion when it announced it would move up its date to Jan. 15. The Democratic National Convention vowed to strip the state of its delegates to next year's convention (along with Florida's delegates) for holding its primary before Feb. 5.
Four Democratic candidates-John Edwards, Barack Obama, Bill Richardson, and Joe Biden-announced this month that they would withdraw from Michigan's contest, protesting the state's violation of national party rules.
South Carolina: South Carolina Republicans will hold their primary on Jan. 19. The state's Democrats will follow on Jan. 29. Republicans moved their primary up from February in order to maintain their first-in-the-South primary position after Florida announced its Jan. 29 contest.
South Carolina is a Republican stronghold. The last Democrat the state supported in a general election was former president Jimmy Carter in 1976. Next year's primary may test Republican unity in South Carolina as the state's social conservatives grapple with which candidate to support.