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Democrats Meet Today To Hash Out Fla., Mich.

Video
Democratic Party members rally outside the site of the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee meeting. Video by Ed O'Keefe/washingtonpost.com

Levin has proved to be a skilled and relentless proponent of dislodging New Hampshire and Iowa from what he sees as their privileged position as the states that kick off the nominating calendar. He was the catalyst behind the creation of a commission, authorized at the 2004 Democratic convention, to study and reform the nominating calendar for 2008.

The commission met for a year and ended up reaffirming Iowa's and New Hampshire's traditional roles. It also proposed adding Nevada and South Carolina to the early round of voting to encourage regional and ethnic diversity. But the panel, in a decision blessed by the rules committee, stated its determination to keep other states from scheduling their contests before Feb. 5, 2008.

In Florida, however, Republicans in control of the governor's mansion and the legislature decided to move the state's primary from Feb. 5 to Jan. 29, to break away from what was becoming a virtual national primary of nearly two dozen states. How hard Democrats resisted remains in dispute. State Democratic Chair Karen L. Thurman said: "We didn't have the votes to [block] it. No matter what happened, this bill would have become law."

Florida's move triggered a reaction from Republicans in South Carolina, who were determined to preserve their tradition of holding the first Southern contest of significance. They announced they would shift their contest from Feb. 2 to Jan. 19.

Katon Dawson, the sometimes flamboyant South Carolina GOP chair, made the announcement in New Hampshire. Standing with him at that Aug. 9 news conference was New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner, who said the decision would trigger his state's law requiring that its primary be held a week before any similar contest. That meant New Hampshire's primary would be, at a minimum, more than a week before the DNC had established in its original timetable.

Two weeks later, the party's Rules and Bylaws Committee voted to bar Florida's delegation from the convention.

Levin marks the Dawson-Gardner news conference as the trigger for his state's decision to move its contest from Feb. 9 to Jan. 15. In his view, Michigan had agreed to abide by the DNC's calendar, provided all other states did, as well.

Once New Hampshire indicated it would move, Michigan indicated it would do the same -- and on Dec. 1, 2007, the DNC's rules committee barred Michigan's delegates from the convention. Levin contends that New Hampshire should have been sanctioned as well for moving its date, but party officials say New Hampshire had the authority to do what it did.

The Republican National Committee, dealing with a similar problem, cut violating states' delegations in half and moved on. The Democrats, determined to send a tough message to other states that might have been contemplating further moves up the calendar, inflicted the maximum penalty of a total ban.

Eager to please the early states, particularly Iowa and New Hampshire, the Democratic presidential candidates agreed in September to a request from party chairs in those two states, as well as in South Carolina and Nevada, that they not campaign in Michigan or Florida. A month later, Obama and several other Democrats removed their names from the Michigan ballot. Clinton did not.

Speaking to New Hampshire Public Radio, Clinton said: "It's clear, this election they're having [in Michigan] is not going to count for anything. But I just personally did not want to set up a situation where the Republicans are going to be campaigning between now and whenever, and then after the nomination, we have to go in and repair the damage to be ready to win Michigan in 2008."

Still, even at the end of last year, few Democrats, including the candidates, anticipated how much these decisions would come back to haunt them. They assumed that there would be an early resolution of the nomination battle and that the nominee, in a magnanimous act, would agree to seat the delegations.

Clinton won Michigan with 54 percent of the vote. The choice of "Uncommitted" was second, with 40 percent. In Florida, all names remained on the ballot, and Clinton won with 50 percent to Obama's 33 percent. About 1.7 million people voted in Florida's primary and about 600,000 in Michigan's, though the candidates did not campaign in either state.

Soon after it became clear that every contest could be crucial to the outcome of the Democratic race, Clinton seized on the two states, in part to bolster her contention that she won more popular votes, even though she trailed in the delegate count. Obama accused her of trying to change the rules.

Now it is left to the same committee that imposed the original sanctions to find a solution that preserves the DNC's power to police its nominating process, and one that still finds peace between the warring campaigns and with two key battleground states.


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