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Hillary declares victory

From NBC/NJ's Athena Jones and NBC's Lauren Appelbaum
DAVIE, FL -- Hillary Clinton landed about half an hour after the polls closed in the delegate-free zone of Florida tonight, and in a six-minute speech declared her win here a "tremendous victory."

With 73% of the precincts reporting, Clinton leads Obama 50%-33%, with Edwards in third with 15%.
 
Tonight in South Florida, she challenged the rules of the game -- the delegate game, that is. Despite the fact the Democratic National Committee punished Florida (along with Michigan) for moving its primary up by stripping the state of all of its delegates, the Clinton camp has been arguing for days that the people of Florida must be heard. The New York senator made the same argument here.
 
"Thank you, Florida Democrats. You know, I could not come here to ask in person for your votes," Clinton told a noisy audience that filled a ballroom here and at times shrieked with excitement. "But I am here to thank you for your votes today. This has been a record turnout because Floridians wanted their voices to be heard on the great issues that affect our country and the world. I am thrilled to have had this vote of confidence that you have given me today, and I promise you I will do everything I can to make sure not only are Florida's Democratic delegates seated, but Florida is in the winning column for the Democrats in 2008."

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D) echoed this sentiments earlier in the evening. "Someone said that our vote doesn't count. Our votes counted in 2000; our votes counted in 2004. They counted yesterday, today, and they will count in November when we elect Hillary Clinton President of the United States."
 
Not so fast, say rivals. The Obama camp was already pushing back earlier today, with supporter John Kerry headlining a conference call to tell reporters that because Florida was not offering any delegates, "It should not become a spin race. It should not become a fabricated race."
 
The Clinton camp had scheduled an afternoon conference call to discuss seating the Florida and Michigan delegates, but postponed it until further notice.
 
Even so, the speakers at Clinton's brief rally tonight were on message, talking about the importance of Florida as a swing state and about how many people came out to vote in the primary.
 
Florida Sen. Bill Nelson used the opportunity to announce his endorsement of Clinton. "So goes Florida, so goes the nation," Nelson said to wild cheers and applause. "The pundits who say that Florida doesn't count cannot ignore 2.5 million Florida Democrats that have voted today and given an overwhelming victory to Sen. Clinton. It is my privilege as a part of the Nelson family that have been personal friends of the Clintons for two decades. Our children know each other. It's my pleasure at the first opportunity that I had because of the pledge to come forth and say I endorse Hillary Clinton."
 
Miami Mayor Manny Diaz also said Florida will count. "Listen, America. Listen to the voice of Florida, because we have spoken loud and we have spoken clear for the next president of the United States of America, Hillary Clinton."
 
Clinton promised her supporters she will go on from tonight to win on Super Tuesday. "Stay with us because starting tomorrow we're going to sweep through the states across our country on to February 5th!," she said. "And, we will together, not only take back the White House, but take back our country!"
 
But the question as Clinton heads to Little Rock, AR tonight is how big of a deal Clinton's rivals will make over what some see as an attempt to change the rules of the game after it has begun.