Diverse goals take rivals to Florida

Times Staff Writers

The battle of attrition for the Democratic presidential nomination diverted to the Sunshine State on Wednesday, with Hillary Rodham Clinton fighting to seat delegates barred from the convention and Barack Obama looking ahead to the November election.

With the candidates focused on different goals in a state that voted in its unsanctioned Democratic primary four months ago, the day of campaigning underscored the historic nature of the drawn-out primary season that ends June 3.

And it coincided with word that presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain will meet this weekend with Florida’s popular governor, Charlie Crist, a potential running mate who could make the state more difficult for the Democrats to win.

Clinton, who has pinned her fading ambitions largely on seating delegations from Florida and Michigan at the Democratic National Convention, invoked the 2000 presidential election that ended with a Supreme Court order to stop a recount of Florida’s votes.


“We still have nightmares about 2000 and what happened in that election,” the New York senator told several hundred supporters spilling out of a suburban clubhouse here, north of Miami. “It was wrong.”

Clinton hopes the party’s rules committee, which meets May 31, will reverse the punishment the Democratic National Committee imposed when Florida and Michigan Democrats held their primaries ahead of the nationally sanctioned Feb. 5 start date.

In Kissimmee, near Orlando, Obama also pushed for seating the delegates, though he suggested it come after he secured the nomination and in the spirit of party unity.

“My hope is, in a couple of weeks’ time, we’ve won more elections, we’ve won some more delegates, we’ve gotten the Florida delegates seated . . . and then we’re going to have a convention in August, and I’m going to accept that nomination,” Obama said at a town hall meeting.

But Obama focused on McCain rather than Clinton and intraparty squabbles. Earlier in the day, before a crowd of about 15,000 in Tampa, Obama criticized McCain over the role of lobbyists in the Republican’s campaign after several staff members were cut because of their lobbying ties. The Illinois senator noted that his Senate colleague from Arizona had sponsored a 1996 bill that would have banned candidates from hiring lobbyists.

“The John McCain then would be pretty disappointed with John McCain now, because he hired some of the biggest lobbyists in Washington,” Obama said.

And Obama repeated his contention, which he first argued Tuesday night as voting ended in Oregon, that he was on the threshold of securing the Democratic nomination after winning the majority of pledged delegates -- those chosen in primaries and caucuses.

Including superdelegates, which are party activists and elected officials, Obama has 1,963 delegates and Clinton has 1,778, according to the Associated Press. Without the Michigan and Florida delegations, 2,026 are needed to win the nomination.

From the comfort of a commanding lead, Obama lavished praise on Clinton for running “an outstanding campaign.”

“She deserves our admiration and our respect because she has set a standard and she has broken through barriers and will open up opportunity for a lot of people, including my two young daughters,” he said.

Clinton also struck a conciliatory tone but didn’t waver from her theme of the day that the Florida and Michigan delegations should be able to vote at the convention in Denver. Clinton won both contests after Obama withdrew from the Michigan ballot and, by mutual agreement, none of the Democratic candidates campaigned in Florida.

“Stay with me,” Clinton urged 2,500 supporters at the University of Miami, arguing that she was more electable than Obama.

A sign echoed her demand that Florida delegates be seated: “Not counting votes: It’s a Republican thing!”

“It’s so important that we continue to press this case, because it is right and just,” she said.

Clinton was visibly fatigued and occasionally hoarse as she reminded supporters throughout the day that their ultimate objective was to put a Democrat in the White House -- an apparent acknowledgment that Obama may be the party’s choice.

“The most important piece of this is we have to win in the fall,” Clinton said. “We haven’t gone through this historic primary campaign not to take the White House.”

Race also came up. Obama, who is of mixed race, addressed a crowd in Kissimmee that included many Puerto Ricans. He and Clinton plan to campaign soon on the island, which votes June 1. The primary season ends June 3 in South Dakota and Montana.

One voter, an African American teacher, lavishly praised Obama for his Philadelphia speech on race and for not running simply to be a “black” president. Obama seized on the comment to again address race, which polls suggest has been a drag on his candidacy in recent primaries in West Virginia and Kentucky.

Obama said ethnic groups were more united than divided, although he acknowledged that some tensions were inevitable.

“The African American community has a history; you can’t ignore that history,” Obama said. “People coming from Puerto Rico, they’ve experienced discrimination in some circumstances. You can’t pretend that doesn’t exist.”

And, echoing part of his Philadelphia speech, which he made after revelations of controversial sermons by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Obama acknowledged that white Americans faced their own problems, particularly in a faltering economy.

“Sometimes minority groups forget that everybody’s having a tough time,” he said. “Everybody’s in this together.”


Times staff writer Scott Martelle in Los Angeles contributed to this report.