Alan Clendenin of Tampa got a big boost in his race for chairman of the state Democratic Party this week when representatives of the state's three biggest county party organizations announced they're supporting him.
If the decision by representatives of the Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach county parties is carried out in the Jan. 26 election, it could cement more than a quarter of the votes in the race for Clendenin.
He said that means he can count on more than enough votes to win the race.
"I've been in this race since April, and I've built a momentum that is now snowballing," Clendenin said. "This means I will be the party chair."
On Wednesday, however, Clendenin's opponent, Allison Tant of Tallahassee, answered with an announcement about the backing she has received from Democratic elected officials, who will cast a significant bloc of votes for her.
"The race is far from over, and Allison continues to have an edge," said Christian Ulvert, a spokesman for Tant.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who has actively backed Tant for the post, questioned whether the endorsements of Clendenin will hold through the election.
"They don't have the votes they think they have," she said.
Some party activists, citing advantages Clendenin and Tant brought to the race, have suggested the two reach a compromise in which they would share power in the party.
John Ramos of Miami-Dade County, one of the six county party representatives in the Tuesday meeting, said they agreed to keep the endorsement secret to allow time for negotiations.
"We're hoping the candidates could come to some type of agreement and not have a winner-take-all contest," he said.
But Clendenin said Wednesday there has been no such agreement: "There will be only one chairman."
He added, "I will welcome Allison Tant as a member of our team. She obviously enjoys a great deal of support from important people in our party. But there will be only one chairman."
Following the Democrats' substantial wins in the Nov. 6 election, after years of losses in Florida races, this is the first state party chairman's race in years with significant competition.
Obama's two successive Florida wins plus congressional and state legislative victories resulting from redistricting have enlivened the party. Clendenin and Tant have campaigned on the issue of how to keep the party's new momentum going.
Clendenin is a longtime party activist, and Tant is a prominent activist for progressive causes and fundraiser for Democratic candidates, including Obama.
In the election, two representatives of each of the 67 counties will cast weighted votes based on each county's Democratic voter registration and past voting performance.
Broward and Miami-Dade have 118 votes each, and Palm Beach has 82, the three largest county vote totals.
If they voted as a bloc for Clendenin, it would give him 318 of the estimated 1,130 available votes, according to an analysis of the party's voting system done by state party activist Jon Ausman.
But Ana Cruz, a Tampa Democratic political consultant who says she's neutral in the race, said even that boost isn't decisive. "No candidate can rely on just the South Florida vote anymore," she said. "It's just going to be a really tight race — whoever wins will end up winning by 25, 30 votes."
She said Clendenin and Tant "have both been able to split votes in various counties and piecemeal coalitions of smaller counties. They're literally splitting hairs at this point."
Hillsborough has the fourth-largest county vote with 66, expected to go for Clendenin; then Orange with 62, likely all for Tant; and Pinellas with 54, likely to split.
As news of the Clendenin endorsement began to spread Wednesday, Tant released a list of elected officials backing her, including Sen. Bill Nelson; all Florida Democratic Congress members except Kathy Castor of Tampa, who's backing Clendenin; and state House Democratic leader Perry Thurston.
Tant could receive more than 100 votes from the elected officials.
She also has been endorsed by the influential Service Employees International Union. Backers say she could do more to boost party fundraising.
Clendenin answered with an endorsement from Alex Sink of Tampa, former chief financial officer and potential 2014 candidate for governor. He also has backing from the party's black, Hispanic, environmentalist, veterans and business caucuses, and the state president of the AFL-CIO, Mike Williams.
He says he better represents grass-roots party activists and has more experience in the inner workings of the party.