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Half-votes not enough for Clinton

Times Staff Writers

In a setback for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential hopes, Democratic Party officials on Saturday cut by more than half the delegate support she was hoping to receive from disputed primaries in Florida and Michigan.

After an all-day meeting punctuated by applause and jeers from a raucous audience, the party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee decided that the Florida and Michigan delegates could attend the Democratic National Convention in August but that each delegate would carry only half a vote.

“You just took away our votes!” one Clinton supporter yelled at the committee. “This isn’t unity!” yelled another.

In addition, rival candidate Barack Obama came away with more Michigan delegates than the Clinton campaign believes he earned -- a sore point that Clinton aides said she might appeal all the way to the convention floor.

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That is a scenario that Democratic officials want to avoid. They have been hoping to settle the Michigan and Florida question in a way that ends the dispute, appeases all sides and unites the party for the general-election matchup with presumptive Republican nominee John McCain.

As the rules committee voted on the delegate plans in a hotel ballroom, Clinton supporters booed and heckled panel members, signaling that there would be a fight at the convention.

“Denver! Denver! Denver!” they chanted, a reference to the city hosting the nominating convention. Some were escorted from the room by security guards.

Clinton aides said the campaign accepted the Florida compromise but disagreed with the Michigan decision. After the “rhetoric during this meeting about democracy and on and on and on, I am stunned that we have the gall and the chutzpah to substitute our judgment for 600,000" Michigan voters, said Harold Ickes, a top Clinton strategist and a rules committee member.

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Howard Wolfson, a Clinton spokesman, said in an interview after the meeting: “We are very concerned about the resolution we saw today. And Sen. Clinton reserves the right to take this to the next step.”

Obama, at a campaign stop in Aberdeen, S.D., seemed pleased with the result.

“I recognize there were compromises on all sides . . . and I hope we can start focusing our attention on the substance, as opposed to just the process, of politics and explain to the American people how the Democrats are going to improve their lives,” he said.

Clinton won the Michigan and Florida primaries -- which were held in January, earlier than the national party allowed. At the time of the voting, party officials had already stripped those states of their delegates as a penalty.

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As Clinton fell behind Obama in the delegate count, she argued that the party should restore the Michigan and Florida delegates. Officials from those states warned that the party risked losing the general election in Michigan and Florida if voters there felt that their primary-election votes had been ignored.

Under the committee’s ruling Saturday, Clinton picked up 19 more delegates than Obama in Florida and five more than him in Michigan. Superdelegates who can now attend the convention due to the panel’s ruling boosted Clinton’s margins a little further.

Obama is now 66 delegates shy of clinching the nomination, something he may be able to accomplish in the next week. He has 2,052 delegates to Clinton’s 1,877 1/2 , according to an Associated Press tally. A candidate now needs 2,118 delegates to win the nomination, 92 more than before the rules committee agreed to seat the Michigan and Florida delegates.

For the committee, Michigan presented a thornier problem than Florida. Not only did the major candidates avoid campaigning in the state, but Obama and other Democrats removed their names from the ballot.

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Clinton’s name remained on the Michigan ballot. She won the primary with 55% of the vote, with 40% choosing “uncommitted.” What to do with that “uncommitted” vote proved vexing. In the end, the panel accepted a proposal offered by Michigan Democrats that used the primary-election results as well as exit polls and write-in votes to estimate Obama’s strength in the state and to assign him a share of the delegates.

The outcome had the same effect as assigning to Obama all the “uncommitted” delegates and then giving him four more. Ickes complained that this solution “hijacked” delegates from Clinton and arbitrarily assigned them to Obama. “There’s been a lot of talk about party unity,” said Ickes. “Let’s all come together, wrap our arms around each other. I submit to you . . . hijacking four delegates is not a good way to start down the path of party unity.”

Committee members were clearly wrestling with the decision. After taking testimony, they retreated behind closed doors for two hours. When they returned, emotions were raw.

In another disappointment for Clinton, the panel voted 15 to 12 against a motion to restore the Florida delegation with full voting strength. Under that scenario, Clinton would have picked up 38 more delegates than Obama, instead of the 19 she eventually gained.

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Alice Huffman, a California member of the committee who backs Clinton, argued that Florida’s Democrats should not be blamed for the early primary date. The date was set by the Republican governor and Legislature, she said.

“We should not penalize them for something that they did not really cause or could not prevent,” she said.

Committee member Yvonne Gates of Nevada countered: “What we were trying to do was to respect the rules. Florida did not follow the rules that we have set up. . . . If they are not followed, you have chaos.”

In the end, even some Clinton supporters did not back the candidate’s position on seating the Florida delegates, voting instead for the proposal to restore the Florida delegation but allow each delegate only half a vote.

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“We cannot leave here and not do something for relief for Florida,” said Huffman, who scolded Clinton supporters in the audience for booing. “This is really a big step on behalf of this committee,” she said. “The world’s not perfect, but it’s good. You can leave with unity. Unity is what this party needs.”

The debate over Michigan was far more tense. Clinton supporters on the committee and in the audience bitterly opposed the compromise, which was backed by Michigan party officials. When Ickes complained about the ruling, an Obama supporter on the panel, Everett Ward of North Carolina, accused him of “political posturing” and purveying “propaganda.”

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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janet.hook@latimes.com


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