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Bruised by Obama, Clinton wins in Florida

Although the state has been stripped of its Democratic delegates, the former first lady told backers at a late-night rally here on Tuesday that their votes most definitely counted.

world Updated: Jan 30, 2008 11:21 IST

Florida may have been a phantom stop on the White House road, but Hillary Clinton trumpeted her Sunshine State victory as she vied to regain the limelight from her high-wattage rival Barack Obama.

Although Florida has been stripped of its Democratic delegates, the former first lady told backers at a late-night rally here on Tuesday that their votes most definitely counted.

"I am convinced that with this resounding vote, and with the millions of Americans who will vote next Tuesday, we will send a clear message that America is back!" she told a couple of hundred raucous supporters.

After trouncing Clinton in Saturday's Democratic primary in South Carolina, Obama had stayed on the offensive on Monday thanks to the endorsement of the party's 75-year-old eminence grise, Senator Edward Kennedy.

Pundits saw a symbolic handing of the torch to the young Illinois senator from the last surviving brother of John F and Robert Kennedy, the revered knights of America's "Camelot" who were gunned down in the tumultuous 1960s.

But for aides to Clinton, who is cast by Obama and Kennedy as the champion of a discredited old guard, symbols matter less than votes, and so the primary in Florida was a stunning assertion of enthusiasm by Democrats.

Barring a change of heart by the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Florida Democrats will be barred from the party's August nominating convention because state leaders held their primary early, in defiance of DNC rules.

But Team Clinton argued that a record 2.5 million Democrats still turned out to hand the New York senator a thumping victory over Obama, put by initial television projections at 50-33 per cent.

Clinton upheld a pledge by the candidates not to campaign in Florida. But she was adamant that the state -- along with Michigan, which has been similarly punished -- should be represented at the convention in Denver.

"I promise you I will do everything I can that not only Florida's Democrats get seated but that Florida is in the winning column for the Democrats in November 2008," she said, alongside Florida Senator Bill Nelson.

Analysts have warned that Democrats cannot afford to alienate voters in Florida, which was the all-important swing state in the disputed 2000 election that was won by George W Bush after a protracted battle in the courts.

The Obama campaign mocked Clinton's interest in the Florida beauty pageant, which has only grown as the race has got tighter.

A spokesman for the Illinois senator, Bill Burton, released a "breaking news" item to declare: "Obama and Clinton tie for delegates in Florida -- 0 for Obama, 0 for Clinton."

Florida would have been a key prize in the tense struggle for the Democratic nomination heading into "Super Tuesday" on February 5, when 22 states will be up for grabs.

The race is delicately poised after Obama won the lead-off caucuses in Iowa and then South Carolina, while Clinton took New Hampshire and Nevada.

Clinton staffers saw Florida as a prelude to Super Tuesday, when the campaigns will have to rely on expensive media advertising to reach voters in sprawling, delegate-rich states such as California and New York.

"This is a hunt for delegates," Clinton's chief strategist Mark Penn said. "We feel we are extremely well positioned with a diverse and broad group of supporters."

That hunt for delegates will take Clinton and Obama in the coming days on a gruelling coast-to-coast trail that will pass by Los Angeles on Thursday, for their last televised debate before Super Tuesday.

California is the biggest prize of all on February 5 and polls there give Clinton a comfortable lead over Obama, helped by staunch support from the Hispanic community -- which backed her by a two-to-one margin in Florida.