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Delegate battle grows nastier

Times Staff Writers

Less than a month ago, Texas Democrats turned out in huge numbers for the presidential nominating contest between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, confident that, no matter who won, the party would have a popular, well-financed candidate.

But that exuberance is gone now.

Across the state this weekend, tense confrontations -- even shoving matches -- erupted as partisans for Clinton and Obama battled over how to interpret the March 4 election results and how to choose delegates to the Texas Democratic convention.

At one particularly raucous session Saturday at Texas Southern University, a leading Clinton backer, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, was booed by hundreds of Obama supporters, and police were called later to break up heated exchanges that left some in tears.

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“It’s bedlam,” said Houston lawyer Daniel J. Shea, a Clinton backer.

Democrat-on-Democrat clashes over delegates have been playing out in Iowa, Colorado, Florida and other states -- the latest indication that the feel-good nomination race of the era has veered into a political ditch.

The contentious battle in Texas shows the high cost of this unending campaign. To hold his delegate lead, Obama has kept a team of 65 paid organizers and lawyers in the state this month, while Clinton has 45.

As the feud rages -- even in states that voted weeks or months ago -- each side has its own game plan for victory. For Obama, it means highlighting his lead in delegates to the party’s national convention in Denver. For Clinton, it means lengthening the campaign so that she can use every tactic to narrow her delegate deficit and to win upcoming primaries in her bid to raise doubts about Obama’s electability in the fall.

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The candidates have also become far more combative, and that hostility has party leaders worried. In a year that looked to be a Democratic romp, Obama and Clinton are burning money, erasing goodwill and eviscerating each other’s reputation while the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain, prepares to kick off his general-election campaign with a nationwide tour designed to highlight of military and congressional experience. On Saturday, Clinton told the Washington Post that she was prepared to take her campaign all the way to the party convention in August.

“This thing has turned from being an adventure to being a grind,” said Robert M. Shrum, a Democratic strategist who managed John F. Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign.

Polls published last week showed some of the dangers: McCain has gained ground against both Democrats, and at least 20% of each Democratic candidate’s supporters now say they would consider abandoning the party in November if their candidate is not the nominee.

The potential for anger is more pronounced -- and the consequences more dire -- than in most campaigns because this contest is being waged along the fault lines of gender and race, with the would-be first female president versus the would-be first black president.

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That was starkly evident Saturday at one convention in Houston, where mostly white Clinton supporters repeatedly challenged the credentials of black Obama backers in a heavily black district that had voted overwhelmingly for Obama. Democratic leaders, who had been thrilled by the massive turnout in early-voting states, now fear the consequences not only in the presidential race but also in state and local ones.

“When you have a divided party, I think it hurts you up and down the ticket,” said Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, who said his party cannot afford to lose seats in an evenly divided state Senate and a state House controlled by a narrow Democratic majority. “Somebody who’s mad enough at one of the candidates to want to vote for John McCain is more likely to [vote] down that side of the ballot.”

Bredesen has circulated a plan to stave off a potentially divisive national nominating convention in August by holding a “primary” earlier this summer among the nearly 800 superdelegates -- the party’s elected officials, leaders and activists -- whose votes could decide the race and forestall the type of delegate fights now unfolding in Texas.

Another party elder, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, proposed Saturday that Clinton and Obama avert a “disaster” by agreeing to share the ticket, with the delegate winner running for president and the loser for vice president.

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“If, on the other hand, the candidates refuse to work out a way to keep both constituencies firmly in the Democratic camp for the general election,” Cuomo wrote in the Boston Globe, “the 2008 primary may be the story of a painfully botched grand opportunity to return our nation to the upward path and [instead] leave us mired in Iraq and government mediocrity.”

Such concern prompted one prominent U.S. senator, Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, an Obama supporter, to call Friday for Clinton to step aside, while Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean urged the candidates to find a resolution by July.

The acrimony was on sharp display Saturday in Texas as Democrats met in 280 district conventions, part of the complicated system the state uses to determine the makeup of its delegation to the national convention.

Clinton won the primary in Texas, but Obama won the caucuses that followed after the polls closed. It was those caucus results that were being challenged Saturday at conventions that drew thousands of boisterous participants.

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Even after Saturday, individual delegates can still be challenged. The count will not be secured until the state party convention in early June, and possibly not even then.

While party leaders openly fret about the potential harm in the November election, the ongoing battles in Texas and other states come with political benefits for Clinton -- particularly in states that held caucuses in which Obama was far more successful.

Not only do Clinton aides believe that scrutinizing the caucus process can help them squeeze out more delegates, due to math or certification errors, but they believe that a drumbeat of complaints about the caucuses bolsters Clinton’s argument to superdelegates that they are not as legitimate as primary elections. In addition, the fighting delays the official delegate count, which helps keep Obama’s lead from growing too fast and gives Clinton more time to raise questions about his electability.

Both the Clinton and Obama teams encouraged supporters to get to Saturday’s conventions amid reports that dirty-trick e-mails told delegates the conventions had been canceled or moved. Thousands of Texas households received a recorded phone call from former President Bill Clinton reminding delegates of the importance of attending.

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Definitive results were not available Saturday evening from the often chaotic district conventions. Nonetheless, both campaigns declared victory. Clinton field organizer Michael Trujillo said preliminary results showed a likely two-delegate shift toward Clinton, thanks to successful challenges in southern and rural Texas. The Obama campaign said Saturday’s conventions confirmed that Obama still had the overall lead in the Texas delegation.

During the day, supporters of both candidates said they were disturbed by what they considered intimidation and cheap tricks from the other side.

Valerie Zavala, 38, said that as soon as she identified herself as a Clinton supporter, Obama backers demanded to know why she had even bothered showing up. “There’s a lot of hostility,” she said. “I see a lot of tension.”

Adib Faafir, an Obama supporter, suspected that trickery by Clinton backers had blocked his chance of participating. He held up his cellphone to show a text message telling him to show up for the convention at a local school miles from the actual location. By the time he arrived at the correct address, he was out of luck.

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“Only two of the people from my precinct have showed up, and they wouldn’t let me register,” he said.

The Clinton campaign had announced last week that it would not be officially challenging delegates. But behind the scenes, Clinton staff encouraged and counseled individuals in the challenge process.

Each side accused the other of gaming the system to its advantage.

Trujillo didn’t bother with diplomatic niceties, charging that the “abundance of pure cheating from the Obama side escapes the imagination.”

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Obama’s top field organizer, Temo Figueroa, said it was Clinton who had created the prospect of a nominating fight lasting to the convention, a nightmare for party leaders.

“The new rules are that she is not going to quit,” he said. “She is going to fight over every single delegate, and the fight may go to the last vote and the last delegate.”

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tom.hamburger@latimes.com

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peter.wallsten@latimes.com


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