Laying the groundwork for a court battle that could divide the Democratic Party, the Reverend Al Sharpton is threatening to sue the Democratic National Committee if it counts Florida's primary results in the official presidential delegates tally.
Rev. Sharpton is traveling to Florida today to compile lists of residents who skipped the January contest because they thought their votes would not count. He plans to have those residents sign affidavits saying they would be disenfranchised by the seating of the Florida delegation, in the event the Democratic Party allowed that to happen.
The party had promised to exclude Florida and Michigan from the nomination process after the states scheduled their primaries in January, earlier than party rules had allowed, but the close contest between senators Clinton and Obama has turned attention toward those primaries, prompting debate between the campaigns and party leaders over how to handle the lockout.
Mrs. Clinton's campaign has said it wants the Florida and Michigan primaries to count, while Mr. Obama's campaign has said it will support the Democratic National Committee's rules.
Mrs. Clinton won the Michigan and Florida primaries. Mr. Obama removed his name from the ballot in Michigan prior to the primary.
Rev. Sharpton has not endorsed a presidential candidate, but his efforts in Florida are widely viewed as benefiting Mr. Obama, who has won more delegates overall than Mrs. Clinton.
A professor of political science at the University of Virginia, Larry Sabato, said he thinks Rev. Sharpton is trying to say that if Mr. Obama wins the most pledged delegates and the most popular votes, but loses the nomination, there will be consequences.
"One of the consequences will be legal trouble or lower turnout by African Americans. That's what they are threatening. I'm not saying that necessarily will happen" Mr. Sabato said. "Who knows whether legal action will occur? Who knows whether African Americans would actually take a walk — they may end up voting Democratic anyway — but that would be the threat."
Rev. Sharpton did not return calls for comment yesterday, and a spokeswoman said he could not be reached because he was participating in a march in Selma, Ala., and then was delivering a speech there. His signature-gathering effort in Florida and the threatened lawsuit were disclosed in a news release from his staff.
He is scheduled to visit Orlando, Port St. Lucie, Miami, and Daytona during his two-day trip across state, and will meet with local chapters of the organization he leads and founded, the National Action Network.
A spokesman for the Democratic National Committee declined to comment on his trip and the threatened lawsuit, as did Senator Clinton's campaign.
During an interview with Bill O'Reilly on Fox News on Friday, Rev. Sharpton said the rules that were set by the party mean that Michigan and Florida delegates should not be seated.
"We cannot have the perception that the rules changed because of some favoritism, or because some people didn't want to see Senator Obama as the nominee, when he legitimately pulled ahead," he said.
If Mr. Obama is denied the nomination because of "back-room deals" made by superdelegates, he said, "you not only would see people like me demonstrating, you may see us talking about whether or not we can support that ticket."
Other civil rights leaders haven't always agreed with Rev. Sharpton's assessment of the Florida primary.
Last month, the chairman of the NAACP, Julian Bond, wrote a letter to the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean, to express "great concern at the prospect that millions of voters in Michigan and Florida could ultimately have their votes completely discounted if they are not assigned delegate representation for the Democratic National Convention."
The letter was posted on the Politico Web site.
The executive director of FairVote, a nonpartisan advocacy group, Robert Richie, said it would be unfair to seat the delegations from Florida and Michigan based on the January vote, because many voters stayed home because they thought their votes wouldn't count.
Yesterday, the Associated Press reported that a consensus was emerging that the best way to give Florida Democrats a say in selecting the party's presidential candidate was to hold a mail-in primary.
State Senator Bill Perkins, a Democrat of Harlem who is supporting Mr. Obama, said he thinks that holding a re-vote in Florida could send the party down "a slippery slope," because it would give the states that broke the party's rules another opportunity to participate in the nomination process.
"It's not fair that those who broke the rules are the ones who are going to get the advantage," he said.