BY BETH REINHARD AND LESLEY CLARK | Miami Herald
Seeking to trip up Barack Obama’s march to the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton plans to overlap with his much-ballyhooed trip to Florida that begins Wednesday.
Florida voters were braced for back-to-back visits from Republican John McCain and Obama that signaled the general election campaign was under way—until word leaked out Monday that Clinton, too, is coming to the state this week.
Clinton is expected to continue pushing for her contested victories in Florida and Michigan to count, though she still would not earn enough delegates to overtake Obama. And McCain and Obama’s increasingly heated battle over foreign policy in Latin America and the Middle East could make it challenging for Clinton to get a word in.
Details of her visit to Palm Beach County on Wednesday were not available Monday night.
‘‘It’s pretty clear the reason all three are going to be here is because the nominee of both parties is going to have to fight hard to win Florida in November,’’ said state Sen. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton, a Clinton supporter. ``We have every reason to believe Florida is in play.’‘
McCain is up first, with a speech Tuesday at the Sheraton Miami Mart that will be his first speech on Cuba and Latin America policy since he became his party’s presumptive nominee. Obama will arrive Wednesday for a three-day swing through Central and South Florida—including stops at the Cuban-American National Foundation in Miami and B’nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton.
Obama has not cinched the nomination, but his trip will come one day after Tuesday’s primaries in Oregon and Kentucky are expected to hand him a majority of pledged delegates. Coming to Florida after that benchmark telegraphs his plans to compete in the nation’s largest battleground state.
‘‘This is another milepost on the trek to the nomination, and it’s a significant one,’’ said Obama spokesman Josh Earnest. ``That said, Sen Clinton has said it’s her intention to continue campaigning and we acknowledge that she has the right to do so.’‘
Since Obama’s last public appearance in Florida in August, McCain has logged 31 days in the state, according to the Republican’s campaign. Both Obama and Clinton boycotted the state for months because its early primary broke national party rules.
‘‘Sen. Obama doesn’t need to buy a condominium in Florida, but he needs to spend a lot of time here,’’ said former Sen. Bob Graham, who has not endorsed either Democratic candidate. ``He has to show his interest in Florida and that his failure to be here was not an act of rudeness but an act of complying with the rules.’‘
Organizers of the McCain event are expecting about 750 people. Tickets went to a number of Cuban, Colombian, Nicaraguan and Venezuelan groups, relatives of the slain Brothers to the Rescue Pilots, elected officials and Republican activists. McCain is also planning to tour the Casa del Preso museum honoring Cuban political prisoners.
The Florida Democratic Party launched a pre-emptive attack Monday when Joe Garcia, a congressional candidate and the former executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, accused McCain of hardening his position against Cuba to fall in line with President Bush.
When he ran for president in 2000, McCain suggested he might be willing to talk about lifting the embargo on Cuba if political prisoners were released. Now McCain says Cuba must also hold free elections before talks are held.
‘‘The majority of Cuban Americans favor breaking with the status quo of failed policy. and here comes John McCain selling the same policy of an administration that is not going to achieve any real change,’’ Garcia said.
Obama says he is willing to meet with anti-American governments in Cuba, Venezuela and Iran about democratic reforms and national security. He’ll make his case at the Cuban American National Foundation luncheon Friday.
‘‘He’s showing boldness to come in person, and that says a lot about him,’’ said Democratic consultant Fred Balsera. ``He’s not going to duck. He’s very confident in his position and willing to explain it to whoever will listen.’‘
Said McCain spokesman Jeff Sadosky: ``This sort of naive world view emboldens our enemies, shows a fundamental lack of judgment, and we’re confident it will be rejected by South Florida voters.’‘
Obama’s first stop will be a potentially sold-out rally at the St. Pete Times Forum, a 20,000-seat venue that hosts the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team. He then heads to Orlando for a town hall meeting and a fundraiser in nearby Maitland.
On Thursday he’ll visit the Boca Raton synagogue and attend $1,000-per-person gatherings at the Bath Club on Miami Beach and the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa in Hollywood. Friday he goes to the Cuban Independence Day luncheon and a rally in Broward County.
The flurry of presidential campaign activity comes two weeks before the Democratic National Committee will reconsider seating Florida delegates at the convention. DNC Chairman Howard Dean was scheduled to attend a party fundraiser Monday night in Tampa with supporters of both Clinton and Obama.