Leading Democrats scrambled Wednesday to prevent the closest, most riveting presidential contest in decades from tearing the party apart, as the odds rose that neither Hillary Rodham Clinton nor Barack Obama could clinch the nomination without angering large blocs of voters.
Anxiety within the party swelled after Clinton’s victories Tuesday staved off elimination and gave her fresh momentum, yet did little to eat into Obama’s lead among delegates -- the people who will formally pick the nominee at the Democratic National Convention in August.
Clinton trails Obama by 105 delegates after netting about a dozen more than he did Tuesday, Associated Press totals show. To make up the gap, the Clinton campaign has pushed to seat delegates from Michigan and Florida -- two states sidelined for violating party rules. Obama did not campaign in either state, though an ad of his aired in Florida. He was not on the ballot in Michigan.
The Michigan Democratic Party said it was in negotiations with its counterpart in Florida, with the Clinton and Obama campaigns, and with the national party over the seating of delegates from the two states.
Democratic members of the Florida and Michigan congressional delegations met on Capitol Hill on Wednesday evening to discuss how to proceed, amid concerns that constituencies such as black voters could be alienated if a solution wasn’t reached.
Rep. Kendrick B. Meek (D-Fla.), before heading into the session, said: “Every day that goes by, the harder this process is going to get as it relates to Florida and Michigan. . . . That’s one of the reasons we’re meeting.”
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) is drafting a letter to Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean asking him to seat the Florida delegates or to open the party’s coffers to pay for another election.
Dan McLaughlin, a Nelson spokesman, said it was vital that two of the largest states in the country had a voice in the selection. “Before a final decision can be made on a nominee by the Democratic Party, you have to hear from the people in those two big states,” he said.
Frustrated by the impasse, two prominent Clinton supporters said the only fair resolution might be to place both Clinton and Obama on the ticket, though one would have to renounce presidential ambitions and stand for vice president. Thus far, neither has shown any interest in the No. 2 job.
Clinton seemed to open the door to what some Democrats have called a “dream ticket,” telling a CBS morning program, “That may be where this is headed.” She suggested that she would take the top slot. Obama did not rule out the possibility, but said, “I think it is very premature to start talking about a joint ticket.”
With the next big showdown coming April 22 in Pennsylvania, some party leaders foresee an outcome that could anger core Democratic constituencies. One reason has to do with math.
Even if she strings together victory after victory in the coming months, Clinton is not likely to net enough delegates to draw even with Obama. That is because party rules award delegates proportionally according to vote totals. So even the loser in any given contest can pick up a respectable number of delegates.
Clinton would get a dramatic boost if the Michigan and Florida results counted toward her total. By some estimates, she would net about 120 delegates based on her strong victories in the two states. Yet that strategy is a risky one.
Last year, the Democratic Party stripped Florida and Michigan of their delegates as punishment for violating a rule forbidding states to leapfrog one another in the election calendar.
At one point, Clinton seemed to accept the outcome.
In an interview the New York senator gave in October, she said of the Michigan primary, at that point three months away: “You know, it’s clear this election they’re having isn’t going to count for anything.”
If black voters who have supported Obama think he lost the nomination because the rules of the contest were unfairly changed, the backlash could be damaging, some civil rights activists said.
“You would be changing the rules after you’ve had the contest,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said. “In Michigan, Obama’s name wasn’t even on the ballot. Clearly, if the name of the candidate who’s getting the African American vote isn’t on the ballot, that encourages many to stay home. . . . It would be a tremendous insult to the voters of this country.”
An Obama victory could split the party in a different way. Like Clinton, the Illinois senator is likely to need the votes of Democratic superdelegates -- party activists and elected officials who are free to back any candidate. Suspicion among Clinton voters that Obama courted superdelegates through backroom deals could upset female and Latino voters loyal to the former first lady.
For now, the party’s focus seems to be Florida and Michigan. Some leading Democrats would like to see another election in those states or perhaps a compromise.
“The only way you could make it work is if both candidates agree on how to divide up those two delegations,” said Leon Panetta, a Clinton supporter who was chief of staff in Bill Clinton’s White House. “Both campaigns would have to agree on a formula. On the other hand, if it’s a fight -- and let’s assume Hillary should win -- [Obama supporters] will be very angry that somehow they were robbed.”
Panetta said a better solution might be a shared ticket. Former Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, another Clinton supporter, also said the two should consider joining forces.
“To me that’s the most logical option, the easiest one to figure out,” he said. “They didn’t get in this thing to beat each other. They got into this to beat the Republican nominee.”
“Ultimately,” Panetta said, “whoever loses will have to lose with grace -- and that may very well mean they should join the ticket in order to ensure the party is unified coming out of the convention.”
Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report.