The only happy Democrats in Orlando were the "Hill people"--none more so than Mary Wilson, a frizzy-headed bundle of cheer who's served as president of the Hillary Rodham Clinton Fan Club since 1995. "I just loved her all the way back then, and it's just gotten worse since then," Wilson said, her sweatshirt drooping from the weight of (by my hasty count) twenty-three Hillary and Billary buttons, along with one of the ubiquitous Screw Deans. "The realities of politics, and what goes on behind closed doors, just burns me up," Wilson said. "But what are you gonna do? Anyway," she said, reaffixing the beam on her face, "Hillary will fix it! I give her carte blanche!"
Senator Clinton's fans have reason to feel giddy: their candidate is the lone Democrat benefiting from this latest "only in Florida" fracas. Just as in Michigan, where Clinton was the sole leading Democrat to leave her name on the January 15 primary ballot, she has outmaneuvered the opposition here. While the other Democrats eagerly signed the four-state pledge and pandered to Iowa and New Hampshire voters by boasting of their fidelity to the party rules, Clinton was the last to sign it, issuing a tepid statement through her campaign manager--and quickly dispatching putative First Gentleman Bill to the state in her stead. At the time she signed the pledge, Clinton held thirty-point leads in the Florida polls. With her challengers surrendering the field, she still does. "My girl is savvy!" Wilson says.
Her foes, meanwhile, were not. Obama's campaign manager called the Florida primary "nothing more than a straw poll." Edwards's campaign, terrified of bad press in Des Moines or Manchester, sent nary a sign, bumper sticker or button to Orlando. (There were some goodies for the Obama, Clinton and Richardson folks.) A furious supporter called Edwards's headquarters and was told the campaign "thought their presence was not encouraged." Later, on Saturday, a couple of rogue Edwards backers commandeered a table and decorated it with hastily hand-painted signs. In keeping with the less than festive atmosphere of the weekend, there was a bitch session in full swing when I sidled up. "Republicans are saying, Look at these assholes--they're shooting themselves in the foot again," said Francis Goss, a bearded refugee from New Jersey. "You don't make war with your own party!" cried a local pipefitter in a Vietnam veterans ball cap. "That's the kind of thing you do in a back alley, have these fights--not in public!"
Have the Democrats already blown their chance to retake Florida next November? Dean has tried to cast the dispute as "a fight among politicians" that will be long forgotten by general-election time. "This is such a process story," says Brazile, "that I just don't know at the end of the day that voters will take this out on the Democrats--this is a very volatile election season." But for six months and counting, the Democratic fracas has been the major topic of political buzz in Florida, with a steady drumbeat of local television soundbites ("The Democrats will be in Orlando this weekend--the question is, Will their candidates be here?") and newspaper and magazine headlines (Will Dean's War on Florida Backfire?). According to recent polls, a whopping 77 percent of Floridians have heard about the Democratic boycott--pretty impressive for "inside baseball." By a 62-to-16 margin across party lines, they think the DNC is off its rocker. And in a statistic cited by Senator Nelson at the convention, where he received a hero's welcome for suing the DNC (and for his romp over Katherine Harris last November), independent Florida voters already say they're 22 percent less likely to vote for a Democrat because of the whole primary mess--far more than enough, as the St. Petersburg Times editorialized, to "turn Florida red." In another sign of trouble, Clinton has lost her lead in Florida general-election polls since the Democrats' boycott commenced, with Rudy Giuliani moving ahead.
"There's no question the Democrats will lose votes over this," says State Senator Geller, who spent much of the weekend trying to hunt down a journalist from Iowa who was reportedly--and rather bravely--stalking the convention. "The only question is how many. There was great anger at the Republicans after 2000. Today, there's great anger but it's at the Democrats." Among the Democrats, too. A few county leaders have reported losing longtime activists, some so outraged they've switched parties. Party stalwarts are encouraging other Democrats to cut off the party; top Democratic fundraiser Wayne Hogan of Jacksonville called Dean personally to cancel a DNC fundraiser this fall. Meanwhile, as Geller said, the Republicans "are smart--they won't let it die." In early October the Republican Party of Florida mailed fliers to thousands of registered Democrats picturing an elderly man dabbing tearful old eyes and the caption: "Has being a Florida Democrat brought you to tears? You're not alone." Across the bottom, the message is more blunt: Ready to Switch Parties? A voter-registration form was helpfully enclosed. The GOP has run ads proclaiming that while the Democratic "contenders have come here to take our money, they won't stand up for our right to be heard"; online, the party is tallying up Floridians' contributions to the absent Democrats. And, for good measure, they're working up an anti-gay marriage ballot initiative to bring out Christian conservatives next November.
"The Washington Democrats seem to be having a hard time accepting that what they've done is a serious mistake and really jeopardizing the election in Florida," says Jack Shifrel, who's been active with the party since Bobby Kennedy's campaign in 1968. Shifrel circulated a passionate "Dear Fellow Democrats" flier at the convention, urging them to withhold campaign money and "tell the DNC that threatening not to allow Florida Democrats to participate fully in the 2008 Democratic Convention will make the Democratic Party the butt of even more embarrassing jokes." Shifrel, who hopes to help organize an eventual Clinton campaign in Broward County, says, "It was a dumb mistake to take a chance on turning off Democrats and independents here. It is fostering an image of, 'Oh, here they go again. They don't want to win. They're such a circular firing squad.' All the stupid jokes that people make about Democrats.
"It's incredible when you think about it. I believe the issues are on our side, more than ever. I believe we have better candidates. But it doesn't mean we're going to win."