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Key Clinton backers take eyes off prize

Times Staff Writer

Pointing the way to a peaceful end for the tumultuous presidential primary campaign, some key supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton said Sunday that they accepted a new finish line in the race for delegates, a threshold Barack Obama could reach as soon as this week.

Obama aides said they expected him to surpass the 2,118 needed delegates after the final Democratic balloting finished Tuesday in South Dakota and Montana, and as more superdelegates backed the Illinois senator.

Moreover, a number of Clinton backers signaled Sunday that they were wary of the kind of protracted fight that some of her aides said they might wage in the coming months.

“It would be most beneficial if we resolved this nomination sooner rather than later,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, a high-profile superdelegate who backs Clinton. “The more time we have to get through a general-election period and the more time we have to prepare in advance of the convention, the better.”

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Some of Clinton’s closest advisors want the New York senator to challenge the party’s unusual decision Saturday to shift four of Clinton’s Michigan delegates to Obama in an attempt to reflect how voters might have cast ballots and to allocate Michigan’s uncommitted delegates to Obama, even though his name did not appear on the ballot in the state.

Even if Clinton won those delegates in a challenge, it would be unlikely to alter the outcome.

“She’ll do the right thing for America, and I don’t think we’re going to fight this at the convention,” said Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a top Clinton supporter and party superdelegate, speaking on CBS. “Because even were we to win it, unless it’s going to change enough delegates for Sen. Clinton to get the nomination, then it would be a fight that would have no purpose.”

Alice Huffman, a member of the rules panel and a superdelegate committed to Clinton, said she would not support an appeal if Obama had clearly won the delegate fight.

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“What’s the point for a challenge, if a challenge doesn’t change the status of anything?” asked Huffman, the president of the California branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

Such sentiments signaled that the Democratic Party might have vaulted a major hurdle in its quest to move beyond the competitive primary season and lay the groundwork for the fall campaign against presumptive Republican nominee John McCain. That achievement came Saturday when the party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee agreed to seat the disqualified Florida and Michigan delegations, but to halve their votes as punishment for holding their primaries early.

Clinton and her top aides conceded nothing Sunday, and even used their own mathematical formula to declare her the winner of the popular vote. But she may begin feeling intense pressure from within her camp to stand down, should Obama cross the delegate threshold for victory.

“I don’t think anybody’s going to have much tolerance” for a convention fight, said Democratic strategist Bill Carrick, who is neutral in this race. “The big rationale for the Clinton campaign to continue among insiders and superdelegates was that they were going to get a big pickup of delegates from Florida and Michigan. There was no big pickup.”

The events Saturday had seemed to portend a more combative course -- with Clinton loyalists openly jeering members of the rules committee and vowing to take her cause to the floor of the party’s national nominating convention this summer in Denver.

That is exactly the nightmare scenario that party strategists believe could doom their hopes by further antagonizing key constituencies such as African Americans, women and working-class whites.

The question of Florida and Michigan has hung over the campaign for months. When Clinton fell behind Obama in the delegate count, she began to argue that the states should be fully counted. Clinton had hoped that the party would not only restore the state’s delegations but would allocate delegates based on her massive victories, perhaps even denying Obama any Michigan delegates because he had pulled his name from the ballot.

That, Clinton aides believed, would have helped pull her close enough to Obama that she could convince party superdelegates to hand her the nomination.

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Saturday’s ruling dashed those hopes.

Clinton picked up just 24 more pledged delegates than Obama from the two states. Even with Clinton’s decisive win in Puerto Rico, Obama is now within 47 delegates of victory. Clinton needs 202.5.

A top Obama advisor, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), said Sunday on NBC that the campaign expected superdelegates to come forward for Obama in the coming days. Referring to the 2,118 goal, Daschle added, “you’re going to see, at the end of this week, a definitive moment . . . where he will have surpassed that number.”

Obama, addressing supporters in South Dakota, said he had called Clinton to congratulate her on her Puerto Rico win -- but he also looked ahead to her role as a surrogate for him in the fall.

“She’s going to be a great asset when we go into November,” he said.

Even as they agreed on the finish line, Clinton and her campaign showed no outward signs Sunday of acknowledging that she would not reach it. In fact, they predicted that she would get there once superdelegates weighed in.

Clinton declared in a Puerto Rico victory speech that she was winning the popular vote and “there can be no doubt” that she was favored by more Americans -- although her calculations of results are widely disputed.

“The decision will fall on the shoulders of those leaders in our party empowered by the rules to vote at the Democratic convention,” she said, then directly addressed uncommitted superdelegates: “I do not envy the decision you must make, but a decision has to be made.”

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Her aides continued to criticize the party’s rules committee. One top aide, Harold M. Ickes, a member of the panel, accused his colleagues of “hijacking” Clinton’s Michigan’s votes.

Even Wasserman Schultz, despite her hope for a swift resolution, called it a “mistake” for the rules committee to slash half the votes of her state’s delegation. She said she had heard from many upset constituents and predicted the party could have trouble revving up Florida activists in the fall.

Still, some Clinton backers said Sunday that Clinton might lose some avowed supporters if Obama clinched the nomination and yet she fought on.

Garry Shay, a rules committee member and Clinton superdelegate, said he would stick with her if she finished within 100 delegates of Obama.

But within 10 to 20 days, he added, “I’m going to reassess based upon the political reality.”

Donna Brazile, an undeclared superdelegate and a rules committee member, hinted Sunday on ABC that within 72 hours she and many of her cohorts would declare loyalty to Obama “because there’s no question that the pressure is on to end this nomination fight.”

“The battle’s over,” she said. “We know the victor.”

Even Ickes, legendary in the party for relishing a junkyard-dog brawl, acknowledged in a television interview that the whole race could end this week.

“It’ll be over when one candidate secures the number for the nomination,” Ickes told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” When host Tim Russert asked if that could happen on Wednesday, Ickes said: “It could. Anything could happen.”

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peter.wallsten@latimes.com

Times staff writer Faye Fiore contributed to this report.


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