Deal Close for 2nd Fla. Primary

A solution to the growing controversy over Florida's disputed Democratic primary may now be in the works. Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson tells NEWSWEEK he has spoken to the Florida Democratic Party about launching a soft-money fund-raising campaign for the benefit of a new mail-in primary, which would supercede the controversial Jan. 29 vote.

Nelson, who spoke on the phone Friday afternoon as he was boarding a plane from Washington, D.C., to Jacksonville, Fla., for the weekend, was not forthcoming with specifics in terms of who will be approached for donations (as a senator, he is specifically forbidden from raising soft-money donations), or the timing of the new primary. The senator was, however, clearly frustrated over waiting for other people to fix the problem. "My job is clear," Nelson says. "It's to stand up for the right of Floridians to vote as intended."

The disputed Democratic primaries in both Florida and Michigan have taken on increased importance as the close contest between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama drags on. Both states held their votes in January against the wishes of the national Democratic Party, which decided to strip their delegates as punishment for breaking party rules and voting prior to Super Tuesday. Nonetheless, 1.75 million Florida Democrats went to the polls--delivering victory to Clinton. As Obama took the lead in the delegate count, Clinton supporters put on pressure for Florida's and Michigan's primaries to count, while Obama's campaign decried the prospect of changing the rules "in the middle of the game." A third option has always been to revote, but there's been a dispute over who would pay for the multi-million-dollar do-over. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has said there's no room in the state budget for a revote, and Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean also pleads poverty, saying he needs to stow away party funds for the general election.

Dan McLaughlin, a spokesman for Senator Nelson, tells NEWSWEEK that the beginning of a new model for Florida's primary vote came into focus earlier this week with a conversation between Nelson and Crist in which they agreed on three common points. First, that a revote was in order. Second, that the second primary should be conducted via mail-in balloting. Finally, both agreed that Floridians should not pay the tab. As Crist went out to praise these three common principles in public, McLaughlin says Nelson approached Dean, who in turn sought counsel from the DNC's lawyers as to how soft money might be raised for the mail-in primary. McLaughlin says Dean responded to Nelson's camp Friday with news that the DNC's legal counsel had determined that the state party in Florida could raise soft money. "There is some form, some shape coming into the cross-hairs, so to speak," McLaughlin says. "Now there's consensus on a revote, on mail-in balloting and on fund-raising."

But obstacles remain. McLaughlin notes what he calls "tiny" provisions in Florida law that prohibit a mail-in election to determine a nominee. But Florida's legislature is currently in session, and could weigh in on such procedural hurdles. Timing is also an unresolved question--precisely how long it would take to mail out ballots and allow a sufficient amount of time for them to be returned. Even then, election supervisors who are currently hip-deep in the process of changing over to optical-scanning machines for the general election may be resistant to processing an entirely new primary election by mail. Still, despite these potential problems, it's clear there's movement, and a determination on the part of Senator Nelson to have Floridians participate in a second primary--one that will be recognized at the party's convention this summer.

Crucially, there's no indication whether either Obama or Clinton would consent to this plan, with all of its remaining parts yet to fall into place. But solving the critical threshold issue of how to fund a do-over in Florida--whatever its contours--is itself gaining momentum (that watchword of the campaign season).

Nelson denied the claim that he's simply intent on delivering delegates to Clinton, whom he has backed. Noting that he didn't endorse Clinton until the evening of the Jan. 29 primary, he claims a long history of trying to settle this issue. "I was trying to last July, August and September to fix this. That's when I filed suit against Howard Dean and the DNC."

Since word leaked Thursday of a direct call by Nelson to Dean at the DNC, political junkies have been wondering about the potential backroom conflict. Nelson gave his version of the conversation to NEWSWEEK, saying: "I called him to explain that if our only option to avoid this train wreck is a do-over, that the taxpayers of Florida are not gonna pay another $18 million ... The state legislature is meeting as we speak, cutting children's health, education and so forth. What I suggested is the money was gonna have to come from somewhere else. Dean thought there were outside sources that could directly contribute to the Florida Democratic Party ... So I have conveyed all this to the state party chairman." The DNC confirmed Nelson's timeline.

Nelson continued: "What I explained to Gov. Dean was that he's got to recognize that he can't keep saying, 'They broke the rules and their votes are not gonna count.' That's not helpful … Obviously the Democratic nominee is going to need Florida and Michigan to win [the general election]."

While Nelson places blame for the scheduling snafu on the state Republicans (who passed the bill to move the primaries to January), he says they can't be prevailed upon to step in. "They're laughing up their sleeve right now, because they got Democrats all wound around the axle on this. Whether there should be [a state solution] or not, there isn't gonna be, with the state in such financial distress."