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Election 2008: Previewing the Florida Primary

Adam Smith
Political Editor, St. Petersburg Times
Tuesday, January 29, 2008 12:00 PM

St. Petersburg Times political editor Adam Smith was online Tuesday, Jan. 29 at noon ET to take your questions on Florida's Republican primary and how it's likely to play out Tuesday, and the potential fallout of the state's blacklisted Democratic primary.

The transcript follows.

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Fairfax, Va.: What do the polls say going in?

Adam Smith: Hi all. Lots of polls of varying credibility. They consistently show McCain and Romney neck-and-neck -- slight McCain advantage -- and Clinton way ahead of Obama

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Rockville, Md.: Are there any procedures in place to make sure a voter only votes in one primary? For example, I can see where some New Yorkers might have a "winter" home in Florida too, meeting residency requirements for both states. Would they be allowed to vote in both the New York and Florida primaries? Is there any way people are prevented from doing this?

Adam Smith: There have been cases where we've found dual registration, but that's quite rare. The elections offices generally do a decent job updating their voter lists

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Earlysville, Va.: I have a cluster of related questions: What is the level of interest and participation in the Florida Democratic primary? How did Florida Democrats react to the state having been stripped of voting convention delegates by the national committee? Is there any evidence that the Clinton forces are trying to bring out a significant vote, now that Hillary has said she wants Florida's delegates to be seated? Is there any counter-effort going on among supporters of Obama and Edwards (who presumably are not the ballot and who have pledged not to compete?) Any "uncommitted" delegates (as in Michigan) on the Democratic ballot? Any indication of what the turnout might be on the Democratic side?

Adam Smith: Early voting shows a lot of interest among Democrats, even while many are livid (and confused) about having no delegates at stake. Grassroots Obama and Clinton supporters have been quite active trying to mobilize voters in Florida, but I haven't seen evidence of coordination with the national campaigns. Not much sign of Edwards folks.

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Philadelphia: The Democratic candidates had agreed not to campaign in Florida, yet I heard Obama was running TV ads in Florida. Are Clinton and Edwards also running TV ads? About how much are these campaigns involved in advertising in Florida?

Adam Smith: Obama's ads are national buys on CNN and MSNBC. While the Clinton campaign has tried to suggest that amounts to breaking the "pledge" not to campaign in Florida, that's a bit of a stretch. As far as I can tell, Obama has been very careful to continue belittling Florida's Democratic primary voters in honor of that pledge.

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St. Petersburg, Fla.: Hi Adam. Do you really see John McCain taking a chance on Gov. Crist as vice president? I can't imagine the vetting process would treat Crist well, nor would he be welcomed by the Dobson-Robertson Wing of the GOP.

Adam Smith: No idea. There's certainly some risk in picking someone barely into his first term, but Crist has bipartisan appeal, and if Republicans see Florida's 27 electoral votes at risk he could make a lot of sense

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Washington: With McCain and Romney essentially tied coming into today's voting, do you think absentee ballots could tip the balance? If so, who has the edge?

Adam Smith: Giuliani and Romney were the only campaigns with any organization up and running in Florida, so between McCain and Romney you would have to give the edge to Romney.

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New York: Given that Florida has played a pivotal role in the past few general elections, what would happen if Florida's banned delegates end up being the difference between Clinton and Obama? Could the party actually seat a nominee who would have lost had Florida been counted -- and wouldn't that guarantee losing Florida in the general election? What are they thinking?

Adam Smith: That certainly would be an interesting scenario. Clinton has pledged to try and seat the Democratic delegates. Obama has not. If Obama campaigns aggressively to win Florida in the general election -- and there's plenty of reason to doubt he will -- he will face a lot of questions about his campaign repeatedly saying that the hundreds of thousands of Democrats voting in the primary are irrelevant to the nomination. Not everybody understands delegates, but votes not counting is kind of a sensitive issue in these parts

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Philadelphia: Some believe the delegates for Florida will be reinstated. Has anyone polled Florida Democrats voters as to whether they expect their delegates will be reinstated and thus their votes may indeed count towards delegates, vs. how many believe they will end up voting just for a "beauty contest"?

Adam Smith: Haven't seen that question polled -- whether they expect the delegates to be seated. Certainly most Democratic elected officials expect the delegates to be seated eventually, and Howard Dean has implied the same thing.

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San Francisco: Isn't Hillary's post-vote appearance in Florida a little sad and desperate? It reeks of looking to change the narrative from her thumping in South Carolina -- and puts the other candidates in the position of having to further diss Florida voters, a theme I'm sure all Democrats rather would leave alone after your GOP legislature snookered them with a bill combining moving the primary with mandating paper ballots.

Adam Smith: It's pretty clear she's trying to boost the importance of today's delegate-free result. And by the way, Florida Democrats deserve their share of the blame for the mess with Florida's Democratic primary. The initial State Senate bill to push the primary to Jan. 29 was sponsored by a Democrat

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Yorba Linda, Calif.: Adam -- do the Romney folks use the Martinez endorsement against McCain in future primary states where immigration is a bigger issue?

Adam Smith: Because Republicans can't win without Florida, I would think it would be pretty short-sighted to bash Florida's Republican senator, but it is a reasonable question whether Martinez's McCain endorsement helped him much outside of South Florida. Republican primary voters in Florida generally hated that immigration bill as much as in the rest of the country

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San Francisco: How and when are the absentee ballots counted for this primary? Does Governor Crist have the same iron-fisted control over your current Secretary of State that the Bushes had over Katharine Harris in 2000?

Adam Smith: Florida has 67 different elections offices, and they each count the votes, absentee and otherwise, in their own counties.

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Spring Hill, Fla.: Who ultimately will pick Florida's "new" delegates and assign them a candidate? And what criteria will be used?

Adam Smith: Pretty much as we speak, local Democrats are holding delegate elections just as in the rest of the country. The only question is whether they'll get seated in the end

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Princeton, N.J.: What did Florida have in mind when they broke the rules? If we don't have some rules, the first primary will be on the day after the previous election. If they want to reform the whole system, that's another story.

Adam Smith: They simply wanted more influence on the nominating process. Republicans who control the legislature knew Florida would lose half the GOP delegates, decided it still was worth it, and were proved right by the candidates showering attention on the state.

Democrats made a token effort at the last minute to comply with the DNC, but I think many ultimately thought that Florida was too important and that the DNC wouldn't follow through with its punishment.

I would argue that politically, the boycott pledge the candidates signed is much more damaging to the Democrats' chances in November than the delegate issue, which most people don't understand anyway

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Reading, Pa.: Sir, can we count on hanging chads and unreliable results, or has Florida gotten all that fixed in the past eight years?

Adam Smith: Gulp. Keep your fingers crossed.

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Pleasantville, N.Y.: How do the parties award delegates in this primary in Florida? Winner-take-all? Proportionate to the popular vote? Some other method? Is the method of awarding delegates the same all over the country? (I understand the Democrats aren't allowing Florida any delegates this year, but what would the procedure be if they were?)

Adam Smith: Republicans are winner-take-all, Democrats would have been by congressional district.

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Washington: Can you give a sense of the get-out-the-vote ground operations that McCain and Romney have set up in Florida?

Adam Smith: McCain had virtually no get-out-the-voter effort. Romney and Giuliani built organizations through most of the year

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Corning, Ark.: I read that McCain's geographic strong point was in the Panhandle, where there are several military bases. What areas are Romney's strengths, or Giuliani's?

Adam Smith: McCain may prove to be strong in Miami-Dade too. Romney has concentrated especially hard on the areas that typically matter most in GOP primaries -- Tampa Bay, Orlando, Jacksonville. Rudy has spent a lot of time and effort in South Florida and the Interstate 4 corridor

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Clearwater, Fla.: Adam, in your crystal ball, do you see it getting tougher for rumored vice presidential pick Crist to win over the base of the party? Do you see a bit of a disconnect between Charlie Crist's rhetoric and record as a moderate, populist and nonpartisan guy, and his attempts now to stump for McCain as the conservative choice? On Fox News this morning, for example, he dodged a question about McCain's allegiances with Kennedy, Feingold and Lieberman, and said some mush about "civil tone." How can he balance his moderate politics with the need to win the base?

Adam Smith: My crystal ball is pretty foggy, but yes, Crist is not a candidate to rev up the base. But in a "change election" he arguably could be a fresh face to win over swing voters

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Tallahassee, Fla.: Hi Adam. I'm interested in the enormous spending differential between Romney and McCain in Florida. My understanding is that Romney has purchased something like 4,000 TV ads to McCain's 400. Do you think this will play into the analysis of the results, e.g. does Romney need more than a narrow victory to generate momentum for Super Tuesday, given the spending disparity?

Adam Smith: TV matters a great deal in Florida and you can't underestimate the importance of Romney's financial advantage. But I would say a win is a win, and whomever the winner is will have big momentum for Feb. 5.

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Spring Hill, Fla.: I'm assuming the delegates chosen today, as per Democratic National Committee orders, don't get seated. Who decides how the state goes, or does Florida have no say at all at the convention?

Adam Smith: Unless the credentials committee (and nominee) decide to seat Florida's delegates, Florida Democrats will have no say in the state convention. Would be quite a scene, wouldn't it, to have a bunch of empty seats for Michigan and Florida at the convention?

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St. Petersburg, Fla.: Why would a candidate denigrate a voter in one of the states that moved their primary to an earlier date? Wasn't it the state party or some official in the state who got that ball rolling? I don't remember being asked when the primary should be held, and being told I don't matter -- again (after seven years of knowing I didn't matter to the current administration) -- doesn't predispose me to like the person saying it!

Adam Smith: Clinton is trying to argue that she respects Florida voters, wants their voices to be heard, etc., etc. But she chose to sign a pledge to boycott Florida Democrats (except those writing checks).

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Albany, N.Y.: Do you see any chance for Obama to make a surprise showing and keep it close?

Adam Smith: I'm not much for predicting, but I will say that I always thought Obama had a chance to win the Florida primary with some effort

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St Petersburg, Fla.: What do you think was the motivation behind Obama's campaign memo about delegates not counting? Was it because Hillary was planning to hold campaign events and he was trying out her? The memo seemed so out of character, and I still am trying to understand it.

Adam Smith: I think it's pretty clear the Obama campaign expects Clinton to win Florida and wants to do what it can to prevent any momentum or positive buzz for Clinton's victory. In doing so, the Obama campaign seems to me to have gone a little overboard dismissing Florida Democrats' voices

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Tallahassee, Fla.: Mr. Smith, with all of the national focus on selecting delegates to the party conventions, Floridians in both primaries are voting on four proposed state constitutional amendments that would cut property taxes. Has there been any polling data to suggest that these amendments are having an effect on turnout?

Adam Smith: It's hard to tell what's driving what. I have heard some people attribute the high early voting more to the property-tax matter than the presidential campaign, and I don't agree. I sense a great deal of interest in the presidential campaign. In Miami-Dade, there's a gambling initiative that is driving up turnout there, too

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Yulee, Fla.: Adam -- former State House Speaker Allan Bense says that the endorsement by Gov. Crist of John McCain led to dozens of conservatives calling him and signing up with Mitt Romney. Do you think that the Crist endorsement of McCain may have a blowback because conservatives don't seem to like or trust Gov. Crist anymore on the issues they think are important?

Adam Smith: That's a stretch. The polls I've seen show Crist quite popular among Republicans in Florida, even if he's not at the stratospheric levels Jeb enjoyed.

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Tampa, Fla.: Be honest -- how bad is it for Gov. Crist if both McCain and Crist's property tax amendment on the ballot today fail?

Adam Smith: Pretty bad, I'd say. You'll sure see a lot of headlines questioning Crist's influence

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Washington: McCain took a lot of heat from the national press corps for his obvious distortion of Romney's record on Iraq and timetables. Was the Florida Press Corps as quick to hold McCain accountable?

Adam Smith: We did. Haven't had a chance to examine the other Florida papers and TV stations.

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Washington: Does Giuliani have a chance at all? It does my heart good to think that one can't necessarily buy an election in Florida (or at least that money's not the only thing that counts: necessary but not sufficient).

Adam Smith: Sure, it would be a great story if Rudy won Florida and all the pundits and pollsters were wrong again.

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Washington: Adam, I know you need to play to your base, but all the Dems took a pledge not to campaign in lovely Florida. Why doesn't Hillary just break the pledge? Or can she curry your favor by just saying she wants to seat the delegates? I'd love to be able to decide which states to seat after I was fairly certain of the outcome.

Adam Smith: It's a little late to break the pledge now. But as I said earlier, she made the choice the snub Florida voters with that oath. So it's a little hollow to suddenly sound like the defender of Florrida Democrats. That said, she's not firing off memos days after day, like the Obama campaign, more or less declaring Democratic primary voters as lepers whose voices are irrelevant.

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Richmond: When will we start hearing about results based on exit polls? I'm waiting with bated breath!

Adam Smith: No idea. I assume after the western Panhandle polls close at 8 p.m. Central time.

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Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.: Adam - you said Gov. Crist is popular, but hasn't his approval rating come down into the 50s out of the 70s that guys like Chuck Todd and Joe Scarborough keep talking about?

Adam Smith: Our last poll showed him at a healthy 57 percent. That's nothing to sneeze at in this evenly divided state.

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Poplar Bluff, Mo.: How do the early voting ballots come into play when the networks call the race using exit polls?

Adam Smith: The exit polls account for early voting.

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Tampa, Fla.: Adam -- Romney has had a 20-person staff dedicated to Florida for more than a year. He has run 4,000 more ads than McCain. McCain only has had some big name volunteers to help in Florida. With this primary as close as it is, is it safe to say Romney is not getting his return on investment?

Adam Smith: Valid question, but ultimately a win is a win. This is the first state where all the leading candidates played hard, and the first state with Republican-only primary.

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Arlington, Va.: I know Hillary supposedly has a big lead in the polling, but I wonder how accurate that is likely to be. Are all three of the Dems listed on the ballot? Given that the party won't seat the delegates, is anyone even really bothering to vote?

Adam Smith: Early voting among Democrats has been strong, so the delegate/boycott issue does not seem to have depressed turnout a great deal.

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Odenton, Md.: In your view as political reporter, how does this play out? Surely the DNC would not let the "empty seat" scenario for Florida play out.

Adam Smith: If it's a contested delegate fight up until the end, I can't see why Florida delegates get seated, but odds are they'll get to go to Denver and wear funny hats like everybody else

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Shelbyville, Tenn.: Since you reported that Florida Gov. Crist endorsed John McCain after committing earlier to the Giuliani campaign in November, and his Chief of Staff and most prominent adviser also discussed playing a prominent role in the Romney campaign, should voters question the sincerity of Gov. Crist's endorsement?

Adam Smith: Guess that would be up to the voters to decide. Or they might think what a shrewd governor Crist is.

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Arroyo Grande, Calif.: Are you the same Adam Smith who wrote the book "Paper Money" (and sorted leaflets in Fort Bragg, N.C., back in 1954)?

Adam Smith: No, but I am the Adam Smith who wrote "Wealth of Nations" in 1776.

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Clearwater, Fla.: Could you please report on Erin's outfit for today and who she will be wearing tonight?

Adam Smith: Thanks everybody. That was fun. Signing off.

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