Obama lavishes attention on Florida

Both democratic candidates eager to sooth voters in populous swing state; McCain fund raises in CA.

Obama Clinton debate 224 (photo credit: AP)
Obama Clinton debate 224
(photo credit: AP)
Close to securing the Democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama lavished attention on Florida in a bid to heal a rift that could cost the party its chances of carrying the important state in the November election. A day after a split in two primaries helped move him within 64 delegates of the total he needs for the nomination, Obama detoured Wednesday from the primary campaign to rally in Florida. It was one of two states stripped of its national convention delegates for flouting party rules and holding early contests. Both Obama and rival Hillary Rodham Clinton are eager to soothe disgruntled voters there, and party officials have been struggling to find a solution for fear of alienating an electorate that could weigh heavily in the November general election match-up against Republican John McCain. Party officials will meet at the end of the month to decide whether to restore the delegates and how. Florida, a populous swing state, is key in the general election, a series of state-by-state competitions in which the bigger states hold greater electoral value. It was Florida that decided the 2000 election that put George W. Bush in office. While Clinton won Michigan's and Florida's primaries, neither she nor Obama campaigned in either state and Obama kept his name off the Michigan ballot. Obama, at a rally Wednesday in Tampa, Florida, increasingly assumed the air of the nominee-in-waiting, sharpening his criticism against McCain, his likely general election rival. He struck where it could hurt most - the Arizona senator and former Vietnam prisoner of war's reputation as a champion of ethics by using lobbyists in his campaign. The former first lady, too, was in Florida, struggling to narrow Obama's overwhelming delegate lead. Obama has an overall total of 1,962 delegates to Clinton's 1,779, leaving him just 64 short of the 2,026 needed to clinch the nomination. Clinton has pushed for Florida and Michigan delegates to be counted, hoping that it would keep her campaign afloat. She has vowed to press ahead with her White House bid until the last primary on June 3. The remaining primaries are in Puerto Rico, South Dakota and Montana. In an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press, Clinton said she is willing to take her fight for Florida and Michigan delegates to the party's August convention if the two states want to go that far. Clinton said the race could extend beyond June 3, but she hoped not. At a rally in Florida on Wednesday, she told supporters that they "learned the hard way what happens when your votes aren't counted and the candidate with fewer votes is declared the winner," a reference to the state's disputed 2000 presidential vote that took weeks of debate and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to decide because of ballot disputes and close results. Obama was just 64 delegates short of the 2,026 needed to clinch the nomination, after two superdelegate endorsements Wednesday and a pair of primaries the night before. Clinton thrashed him in Kentucky; he answered by winning Oregon. The Illinois senator also secured a majority of the pledged delegates won in primaries and caucuses across the country - a milestone that could help him win over more superdelegates - party insiders and elected officials who can vote for whomever they choose at the party's nominating convention. Although Obama won most groups of voters in Oregon, other recent primaries including Kentucky's have been polarizing, with large numbers of his supporters and Clinton's digging in behind their candidate and saying they would not vote for the other one in the fall campaign against McCain. Obama has been focusing on McCain while being careful not to alienate Clinton and her supporters. On Wednesday he said McCain has lost faith with his own good government principles. Ten years ago, Obama said, McCain proposed barring registered lobbyists - those who seek to influence members of Congress members on behalf of special interests, big companies and other groups - from working for candidates' campaigns. "John McCain then would be pretty disappointed in John McCain now, because he hired some of the biggest lobbyists in Washington to run his campaign," Obama said. McCain recently enforced a new no-lobbyist policy on his campaign, forcing out some top aides. With McCain fund raising in California, campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds responded on his behalf, alleging that Obama may also have lobbyists advising his campaign that he has not disclosed. Meanwhile, McCain was meeting over the weekend with three Republicans who have been mentioned as possible running mates, but a top aide said Wednesday that vetting possible vice presidential candidates is not on the agenda. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and their wives were all invited to a gathering at the senator's home in Arizona for the Memorial Day holiday weekend, said Mark Salter, a senior adviser to McCain.