WASHINGTON — Florida Democrats would forfeit their votes in selecting a presidential nominee unless they delay their state election by at least a week, the national party said in a stern action Saturday meant to discourage others from leapfrogging ahead to earlier dates.
The Florida party has 30 days to submit an alternative to its planned Jan. 29 primary or lose its 210 delegates to the nominating convention in Denver next summer.
The state party chairwoman, Karen Thurman, said she would confer with state officials about the ultimatum. ``It's going to be a difficult discussion,'' she said, because Floridians are wary of having their votes taken away.
Elected officials in Florida have said they would consider legal action and a protest at the convention if the national party barred the state's delegates.
There is general agreement that the eventual nominee will seat Florida's delegates rather than allow a fight at a convention intended to show party unity. But the decision by the Democratic National Committee's rules panel could reduce Florida's influence because candidates may want to campaign in states where the votes are counted.
Florida party officials said they originally opposed the early primary date, which covers both the Democratic and Republican primaries. The Republican-controlled Legislature passed the change and the GOP governor signed it into law in an effort to give the state a more prominent voice in national politics.
But Florida Democratic leaders now are committed to the state-run election because voter participation would drop drastically if Democrats held an alternative contest.
Members of the DNC rules committee expressed skepticism that Florida Democrats did enough to stop the change and they approved the harshest penalty. Florida's representative on the panel, Allan Katz, was the only vote against the penalty.
Refusing to seat the delegates would set a ``terrible situation for Florida and a very bad situation for the Democratic Party,'' Katz said.
Party rules say states cannot hold their 2008 primary contests before Feb. 5, except for Iowa on Jan. 14, Nevada on Jan. 19, New Hampshire on Jan. 22 and South Carolina on Jan. 29.
The calendar was designed to preserve the traditional role that Iowa and New Hampshire have played in selecting the nominee, while adding two states with more racial and geographic diversity to influential early slots.
Several DNC officials said before the vote that they wanted to take the strong action against Florida to discourage Michigan, New Hampshire and other states that were considering advancing their contests in violation of party rules.
Garry Shay, a rules committee member from California, said allowing Florida to move forward ``would open the door to chaos.''
DNC committee member Donna Brazile also argued for a strong penalty, saying, ``I hesitate to see what happens if we show somehow some wiggle room in our process.''
The shifting dates have added uncertainty to the presidential candidates' campaign plans with the first votes to be cast in less than five months.
Advisers to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has a wide lead in Florida polls, said she will go wherever elections are held. Sen. Barack Obama, who was campaigning in Miami on Saturday, said: ``The national party has a difficult task, which is to try to create some order out of chaos. My job is really not to speculate on how to make it all work. I'm a candidate, I'm like a player on the field. I shouldn't be setting up the rules.''
Campaigning in New Hampshire, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico Democrat said it is important that the leadoff roles of Iowa and New Hampshire ``not be usurped.''
"As a candidate, I just want to get this settled and just appeal to all parties to get their act together and have some definitive roles,'' Richardson said. ``Let's have an orderly process instead of states trying to outdo each other.''
Florida's congressional delegation has raised the possibility of a voting rights investigation in response to the punishment.
National Democratic officials insist there is no legal basis to force the party to seat delegates in violation of its rules. Florida officials could not say what law the DNC would have violated or where the case could be pursued.
Jon Ausman, a DNC member from Florida, pleaded for a role in what could turn out to be a historic election, with the potential of the first woman, black or Hispanic nominee, even if the state were the ``black sheep'' of the primary season.
"We're asking you for mercy, not judgment,'' he told the rules committee meeting in a hotel conference room.
The party's action comes seven years after Florida was at the center of an unprecedented dispute over presidential vote counting. In 2000, the election between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore was held up for a recount in Florida. The Supreme Court stopped the recount, and Bush won the state by 537 votes.
Terrie Brady, a DNC member who helped present Florida's case, said the party's denial of delegates disenfranchises voters. Rules committee members objected to the term, saying Florida's votes would be counted if they followed the rules.
"I find your use of the word disenfranchisement to be an overstatement,'' said committee member David McDonald, who is from Washington state.
New Hampshire's secretary of state says he may move up the state's primary, but for now the party has submitted a plan for Jan. 22, with the notation that the date is subject to change. Michigan's Legislature has taken up a bill that would move its contest to Jan. 15, but the state party submitted a proposal that for now describes a caucus on Feb. 9.
Michigan Democratic Party chairman Mark Brewer said he hopes the ruling against Florida keeps the DNC calendar in place. ``If it doesn't, we're going to move,'' he said.