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Much Ado About Not Much

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Presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) addresses her supporters after winning the Florida democratic primary election.Video by AP

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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, January 30, 2008

DAVIE, Fla.

Cheering supporters? Check. Election returns on the projection screen? Check. Andrea Mitchell and Candy Crowley doing stand-ups? Check and check. In fact, the only piece missing from Hillary Clinton's Florida victory party here Tuesday night was a victory.

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Yes, Clinton, as expected, beat Barack Obama by a wide margin in the Florida primary. But all the Democratic candidates had agreed months ago to boycott the contest after the Democratic National Committee stripped Florida of its delegates to punish the state for moving up its primary date. The result was a primary without purpose, a show about nothing.

But in a political stunt worthy of the late Evel Knievel, the Clinton campaign decided to put on an ersatz victory party that, it hoped, would erase memories of Obama's actual victory Saturday night in South Carolina's Democratic primary. "Thank you, Florida Democrats!" Clinton shouted to the cheering throng. "I am thrilled to have this vote of confidence."

It was a perfect reproduction of an actual victory speech, delivered at a perfectly ersatz celebration at a perfectly pretend location: a faux Italianate palace with lion sculptures, indoor fountains and a commanding view of Interstate 595. The Signature Grand ("Elegant Weddings and Grand Social Occasions") was also holding receptions Tuesday night for a pediatric practice and for a group of optometry students, but the Clinton campaign was the biggest draw: It filled the Silver Palm Room, the Golden Palm Room and the Emerald Palm Room.

But even some of the faithful in the hall doubted that the big margin for Clinton, flashed on a projection screen, was an accurate gauge of the race here. "Probably not," said Eleanor Forte, on the outer rim of the celebration. "If they had campaigned here, it probably would have come out differently."

That was a nuance the Clinton campaign was hoping to overlook as it sought retroactively to give weight to the Florida primary. "I am a gutter-ball bowler," Clinton said as she campaigned Sunday night in the state in which she had pledged not to campaign. The remark, overheard by a Miami Herald reporter, was no doubt meant literally; she was standing outside Lucky Strike Lanes in Miami Beach. But in politics, too, Clinton has recently been putting some questionable rotation on the ball.

First came the South Carolina primary, in which she and her husband tried unsuccessfully to morph Barack Obama into Jesse Jackson. Then came word Sunday that she would fly here to celebrate her "victory" in the Florida primary -- even though she and the other Democratic candidates long ago declared it null and void. She said she wanted restoration of the stripped delegates from disobedient Florida and Michigan (where Clinton, the only major candidate on the ballot, beat "uncommitted," 55 percent to 40 percent).

"There are more voters in Florida alone than there are in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina combined," Clinton campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle argued in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. This was the same Solis Doyle who last summer committed Clinton to signing the Florida boycott pledge, saying, "We believe Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina play a unique and special role in the nominating process, and we believe the DNC's rules and its calendar provide the necessary structure to respect and honor that role."

Five minutes after Solis Doyle's call, Obama's campaign retaliated with its own conference call, featuring Obama backer John Kerry. "It is not a legitimate race, it should not become a spin race, it should not become a fabricated race," he protested.

Reporters on the Clinton conference call seemed to share that view. "The timing seems a little curious," said one. "A little desperate?" asked another. "Trying to have it both ways?" inquired a third.

Clinton announced plans for the Florida celebration on Sunday, the same day she held a trio of fundraisers in Florida and accepted the endorsement of the Miami mayor while pressing some flesh for the cameras. On Monday, her campaign claimed the endorsement of Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, while pro-Clinton unions continued sending out mailings in her support.

All of this sounded suspiciously like campaigning. But aides said they were merely trying to protect the people of Florida who, despite the campaign's "scrupulous" refusal to campaign in the state, showed up to vote for Clinton anyway.

And so, at the Signature Grand here Tuesday night, a few hundred invited supporters, many of them from labor unions, clustered around the ballroom doors waiting for the Secret Service to finish its sweep so they could start the victory party and buy "ultra-premium" liquors for $7. There was a brief delay opening the doors, as organizers let the old folks -- a prominent demographic in South Florida -- take their seats first. But when the doors finally opened at 7:30, the younger supporters charged in, screaming and staking out positions near the lectern.

Wolf Blitzer was up on the big projection screen. Clinton banners ("Solutions for America") had all the camera angles covered. The orange stucco palace was filled with official Hillary Clinton posters and stickers, and people in "Team Hillary" T-shirts signed in elected officials and other supporters. Clinton aides worked the rows of reporters and the candidate entered to the strains of "9 to 5" and roars from the crowd.

"Thank you, thank you for this tremendous victory tonight," Clinton shouted.

Well, at least a tremendous victory party.


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