Now that our long-predicted early date for the Florida presidential primary has materialized, the question becomes whether Howard Dean will take the bait.
As I’ve been reporting for months — usually to deaf ears — the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature very cleverly chose to move the Florida primary to January 29.
This has brought threats of penalties against presidential candidates if they campaign in Florida to win the primary races there.
Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), has joined many top officials of that party in making it clear that delegates for the national nominating convention may not be selected by the votes in the January 29 Florida Democratic primary.
In making these pronouncements, Dean and the DNC are on the precipice of falling into one of the most cleverly devised political traps in recent years.
Florida Republicans are privately ecstatic over the response to the new primary date by Dean and the Democratic rule-makers.
If the national Democrats hold their ground, they will reduce the Democratic primary in Florida to a meaningless exercise, while the Republican winner will most likely receive most or all of the delegates apportioned by the GOP for Florida.
How is this a trick? The Republicans know the DNC is governed by extremely hard-nosed and inflexible leaders who have managed to botch numerous presidential campaigns in recent years. Knowing that Dean likely will attempt to make a January 29 Democratic primary meaningless, Republicans recognized the opportunity to be the only game in town.
Why does it matter for the GOP to be the only political party that has a meaningful Florida primary? One big reason is that independent voters have been the swing vote and have decided just about every Florida presidential general election in recent memory.
A poll conducted this past week by InsiderAdvantage revealed that independent voters are disapproving of President Bush in higher and higher numbers, and with more and more virulence.
How does a party whose national profile is reeling from a loss of independent voters hope to win back those independents in Florida, the biggest state still up for grabs in the presidential election?
By holding its partisan primary in a situation where independent voters have only one choice — to vote Republican — if they want their votes to count. That focuses them on the Republican candidates. It gets them thinking in terms of Republicans and perhaps encourages them to vote GOP in the general election.
Not surprisingly, Democrats in Florida are starting to wake up. At least some are realizing that the DNC’s possible strategy of choosing its presidential convention delegates in a caucus held after the primary would in no way match the power and prestige of a bona fide Republican primary, instead of a "beauty contest," as the Democrats might make theirs.
Members of the Trial Bar — highly influential in Florida politics — reportedly are threatening to hold back large campaign contributions to the Democrats if Dean and the DNC keep holding to their current stubborn position.
The Trial Bar’s argument is simple: Florida isn’t just another state in presidential politics. With Pennsylvania and Ohio likely lost causes for the Republicans in 2008, Florida easily becomes the most critical swing state for the presidential election.
Florida Democrats are starting to realize that by allowing voters the opportunity to have a real voice only by voting in the Republican primary, those voters may be more likely to feel a kinship with the Republican nominee in November. Suddenly, independent voters now slipping away from the GOP might become a potential prize possession to be fought for by both parties.
It’s likely all this will be sorted out and cooler heads among the Democrats will prevail. But it’s still a possibility that the party’s national leadership will step into the Republican trap. If so, Florida’s state Speaker of the House, Marco Rubio of Miami, who championed this legislation, will have pulled off one of the great political coups of our time.
When told that the number of delegates Florida may seat at the national convention might be reduced, Rubio scoffed. He correctly pointed out that the national conventions have become all but meaningless in actually choosing presidential nominees. He said he has no desire to wear a silly hat at a meaningless convention.
The question now is, will Howard Dean be wearing a dunce cap of his own?