TAMPA, Fla. - The fight for the Democratic presidential nomination moved to Florida yesterday, as front-runner Barack Obama began a three-day swing with rallies in Tampa and Kissimmee and Hillary Clinton pressed her case in Boca Raton and Miami to seat delegates elected in disputed primaries in Florida and Michigan.
One day after winning a majority of elected delegates, Obama returned to Florida for the first time in almost a year, seeking to mend fences in a state whose primary was discounted by the Democratic National Committee because state officials accelerated the date of its primary. Saying "it's good to be back in Florida," Obama thanked a rally of 15,000 at Tampa's St. Pete Times Forum for "holding down the fort."
When Floridians went to the polls on Jan. 29, Obama and other Democratic candidates did not campaign in the state in deference to the national party's wishes. Clinton won the vote, 50 percent to Obama's 33 percent, with former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards winning 14 percent. Ever since, Clinton has been lobbying to the have Florida delegates seated.
At an event in Boca Raton, Clinton insisted that party rules should not disenfranchise voters.
"The people who voted did nothing wrong, and it would be wrong to punish you," she said Wednesday. "It's very clear what 1.7 million people intended here in Florida."
The DNC rules and bylaws committee is holding a meeting May 31 to consider solutions to the Florida and Michigan issues, and both campaigns have made suggestions on how to apportion the votes. Noting that "the road to the White House runs right through Florida and Michigan," Clinton warned that unless Democrats count the votes of Michigan and Florida primary voters, they risk losing them in the fall to the Republicans, who will remind them not to trust the Democrats.
"We should keep that faith, listen to those voices and count every one of those votes," she said.
Obama, looking toward the fall campaign when Florida could be a battleground state, turned his attention from Clinton to Republican John McCain. Noting that 10 years ago the Arizona Republican called for a ban on registered lobbyists in campaigns, Obama said the Arizona senator now has some of the top lobbyists in Washington running his political campaign.
"John McCain then would be pretty disappointed with John McCain now," he said, positing the election as a contest between "a third term for George Bush" and "an election taking on the root causes of special interest dominated politics."
McCain has been criticizing Obama for suggesting he would reach out diplomatically to dictatorships, calling the Illinois senator "reckless." Obama countered yesterday that McCain's "whole foreign policy is 'I won't talk to that guy,' and 'I won't talk to that guy.' ... He wants to perpetuate the same errors that George Bush made that cost us so much in blood and treasure" in Iraq.
The enthusiastic crowd interrupted him several times with cheers and chants of "Yes we can." In a nod to the state's Hispanic population, Obama used the original Spanish version of this favorite campaign refrain in his speech.
"We can't wait to fix our schools, we can't wait to fix our health care system, we can't wait to bring good wages and jobs to Tampa, we can't wait to end this war in Iraq," he said. "Si se puede. Yes we can. That's what the American people are looking for."
Nicholas Riccardi and Johanna Neuman write for the Los Angeles Times.