03/28/2008 02:48 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Last Minute Endorsements Feed Bitter Florida Primary Battle

Floridians go to the polls Tuesday with Democrats sparring for big state recognition with its "beauty contest" and the state's Republican governor pitting himself against his legislative leaders.

As the primary clock ticks away, endorsements are coming in spurts, much to the delight of Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama. The last-minute endorsements are expected to have some bearing as Democrats choose between three candidates and Republicans select from five.

The Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale endorsed Sen. McCain on Sunday for the Republican primary, and on Monday named Sen. Obama as its "worthy" Democratic choice. A separate "opinion" story suggested Mayor Rudy Giuliani was the only GOP candidate with an understanding of Florida issues and reported that his ground operations in Florida could prove effective in turning out his supporters.

The Palm Beach Post and Gainesville Sun also both endorsed Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama, while the Tallahassee Democrat announced it was not making primary choices. Other newspaper endorsements are expected today.

The Miami Herald- the state's largest newspaper - did not endorse any candidate but
comments from its editorial Sunday made their way onto political blogs and among voters, giving new hope to the John Edwards supporters. "Of the three leading Democratic candidates, former Sen. John Edwards offers the most consistent economic message. He is both the underdog in the race and the champion of the underdogs..." the Herald noted.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and the state's only Republican senator --Mel Martinez-- both endorsed McCain, with Martinez immediately joining Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman and the Arizona Senator as he campaigned in Central Florida and among South Florida condominium residents, many of them transplanted New Yorkers, supposedly Giuliani supporters.

The Crist endorsement put the governor at odds with his legislative leader, Rep. Marco Rubio and several other Cuban-American lawmakers, who are backing former Arkansas Gov, Mike Huckabee. Allan Bense, former House speaker and key supporter of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said the Crist endorsement would backfire and actually "hurt" McCain. The bitterness among the Republicans is obvious. As Bense noted "we are conservative in this part of the world," criticizing McCain and Crist as too liberal.

At the same time, television commercials touting Romney were appearing with increased frequency all over Florida in English and Spanish and he made a series of appearances at Latino functions wearing a traditional guayabera shirt, which he said was a "gift from Bay of Pigs veterans." He accused McCain of telling mis-truths about his Iraq war views. Rep. Ron Paul was also visible but mostly with honk and wave events and signage.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Hillary Clinton urged the Democratic National Committee to immediately change its attitude so Florida's elected delegates can be seated and can make plans to attend the Democratic Convention in Denver, Aug. 25-28. The DNC is punishing Florida by taking away its delegates because it is holding a primary date prior to Super Tuesday Feb. 5. Dem party chief Karen Thurman said that once someone wraps up the nomination, he or she will readmit Florida, Michigan and other defiant early birds for the sake of party unity.

Florida was originally entitled to 210 delegates, one of the nation's top Democratic delegation-strength states. Thurman said she hates the term "beauty contest" but that's the status of Florida today - 24 hours before election day.

Sen. Obama said he would live up to his DNC pledge and not campaign in Florida, adding in televison footage that he is not using a race-driven campaign, despite his receiving 80 per cent of the African-American vote in South Carolina.

The John Edwards campaign - buoyed by strong newspaper accounts reporting his views - seemed to be building increased support from Florida voters. Several volunteer groups were making last minute online e-mail "calls."

The Republicans- also expecting Tuesday's vote in Florida to be a springboard on Feb. 5 - has lost 50 per cent of its delegates because of the Jan. 29 primary date.

"What happens Tuesday as it relates to the presidential primaries, will have an impact on the ultimate nominees of both parties," Gov. Crist told the Tallahassee Democrat.

Not since a relatively unknown Jimmy Carter stopped Alabama Gov. George Wallace 32 years ago in the 1976 primary has Florida been so important on the campaign calendar. That's why Crist said he and GOP legislative leaders decided to hold a Jan. 29 primary, the newspaper said.

They reneged on delegate-selection rules of both parties, however, touching off both a public-relations battle and court rulings, which they lost. The four states that the Democrats allowed to vote before Feb. 5 -- Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina -- made presidential candidates sign a "pledge" to boycott Florida for defying the national rules.

Over the weekend, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson praised candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton's pledge to seek seating the state's delegation. He said he would ask the other candidates to promise the same thing.

"The Florida vote will count -- and, so will all its delegates," Sen. Nelson said in a prepared statement.

But, every political pundit agrees that if one or both parties still have the contest unresolved by summer, no candidate will want to bring in votes that might put an opponent over the top.

On the Democratic side, every delegate would have to be elected by Congressional District, and the party will go through the motions of selecting delegates on that basis, based on the Jan. 29 vote for each candidate. This will probably mean a split Florida delegation, depending on Tuesday's vote for each candidate.

On the GOP side is a rule giving the state's GOP Chairman control of the delegation. That means he can broker the Florida vote to the candidate who does what he wants, and that includes possibly putting Crist on the ticket for vice president. This has been a rumor, repeated time and time again by Florida GOP power brokers.

Florida has been described as the state with a demographic mix of elderly, Hispanic, blue-collar, agricultural and urban voters -- the state that is considered a "swing state." Florida wins will give each party's leader bragging rights for Super Tuesday."

Democratic State Rep. Luis Garcia, of Miami Beach and vice chair of the party, said Florida's cultural mix makes the state a mirror for the rest of the nation.

"We are a state that will indicate what the national vote will be," he said. " Florida is America."

On Feb. 5, Democrats will choose 2,075 delegates in 22 states and Republicans will select 1,073 delegates in 21 states. That's about half the total needed for the Democratic nomination and about 100 fewer than a GOP candidate needs to get the nomination the first week of September.

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