Hillary Clinton has decided to rewrite the rules of the race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
Like other candidates, she pledged not to campaign in Florida after the state jumped ahead on the schedule of caucuses and primaries set by the Democratic National Committee. She had to make that pledge if she hoped to compete in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses and the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary, as Iowa and New Hampshire zealously guard their starting status on the political calendar.
But Iowa and New Hampshire are history and, after a landslide loss in South Carolina on Saturday, Clinton needs a win.
So she is appearing in Florida in anticipation of Tuesday's Democratic primary there.
"Hundreds of thousands of people have already voted in Florida and I want them to know I will be there to be part of what they have tried to do to make sure their voices are heard," said Clinton before jetting to Sarasota and Miami for events on Sunday.
The Clinton campaign claims that the senator from New York is abiding by the no-campaigning pledge because Sunday's two Florida events were technically closed to the public. But the stops were treated as major news events in a state where many Democrats have expressed anger over the absence of the party's presidential candidates during a period when Florida is overrun by Republican contenders.
The truth of the Clinton strategy was writ large in a memo from top strategist Howard Wolfson, who announced on the day of the campaign's dismal showing in South Carolina that, "Regardless of today's outcome, the race quickly shifts to Florida, where hundreds of thousands of Democrats will turn out to vote on Tuesday. Despite efforts by the Obama campaign to ignore Floridians, their voices will be heard loud and clear across the country, as the last state to vote before Super Tuesday on February 5."
"Efforts by the Obama campaign to ignore Floridians"?
Obama's just abiding by the pledge. Admittedly, it's a foolish pledge. None of the campaigns should have taken it, and they all should have agreed to drop it. But in the absence of such an agreement, Obama is not ignoring Floridians. He is remaining true to his word.
Of course, Obama is surging, while Clinton is desperate.
How desperate? She says she'll be back in Florida Tuesday night, presumably to claim a win like the one she hailed after beating "uncommitted" in a Michigan primary that the other major candidates skipped.
After Michigan and Florida moved up their primaries to dates that were unacceptable to the Democratic National Committee -- in hopes of gaining a more meaningful role in the nominating process for big states -- the DNC announced that delegates chosen in the rouge primaries would not be seated at this summer's party convention.
It was always assumed that once a nominee had been identified, he or she would pull rank and reverse the DNC's decision to exclude delegations from the two states. Michigan and Florida have historically been battleground states in November elections, and no nominee wants to offend a battleground state.
But it was expected that this exercise would play out after the primaries were done.
Clinton is now rejecting that politeness along with the no-campaigning pledge.
"I will try to persuade my delegates to seat the delegates from Michigan and Florida," she declared before arriving in Florida. "Democrats have to win Michigan and have to try to win Florida and I intend to do that. The people of Florida deserve to be represented in the process of picking a candidate for president of the United States."
That may sound like a high-minded embrace of democracy -- or at least realism regarding the fall campaign -- but it's really nothing more than the latest political gambit from a Clinton campaign that is developing a reputation for playing fast and loose with the rules. Having "secured" Michigan, Clinton is now playing her Florida card. If she wins big in the Sunshine state and then succeeds in qualifying delegations from Michigan and Florida for the convention, the senator will get the bulk of the close to 350 delegates from the two states. That's more than Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina combined will send to the convention.
No wonder Hillary Clinton is laughing all the way to the Florida primary.
Her arrival is Sarasota was timed so that she could be photographed with palm trees behind her. "It is a perfect day here in Florida," declared a bemused candidate who officially was not campaigning in Florida as she posed for the classic Florida campaign photo.
John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press and the co-author with Robert W. McChesney of TRAGEDY & FARCE: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy — The New Press.
© 2008 The Nation