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Possible next move: Prolonging the path

Times Staff Writer

Tuesday’s voting in Indiana and North Carolina put Hillary Rodham Clinton no closer to overtaking Barack Obama on the path to the Democratic presidential nomination. That now leaves Clinton with one overriding task: to make the path longer.

For most of the year, June 3 beckoned as the end of an exhausting nominating calendar, the day that the final states hold primaries to choose between Clinton and Obama. But now, Clinton is preparing to push the contest beyond the voting phase of the process and into the realm of committee meetings and credentialing rules, where her campaign believes she may have a chance to overtake Obama before the party’s nominating convention in late August.

For voters who are weary of the contest -- and for the growing number of Democratic leaders who say the ongoing duel is damaging the party -- Clinton’s course means continued uncertainty over whether the party can unify to focus on beating presumed Republican nominee John McCain.

Tuesday’s voting all but ensured that Clinton, who shows no signs of giving up and vowed in her Indiana victory speech to go “full speed on to the White House,” will now try to lengthen the nominating process.

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She failed to come up with the dual victories she needed to raise doubts that Obama could beat McCain this fall. As a result, she will find it harder to make a case for the Democratic superdelegates, whose votes will probably provide the margin of victory to whoever wins the nomination, to rally around her.

In fact, Clinton’s chance to overtake Obama in the number of elected delegates probably disappeared with her lopsided loss in North Carolina. And to overtake Obama in the popular vote, she would probably have had to post a large margin of victory in Indiana.

That is why Clinton in the last day has begun talking about raising the number of delegates needed to clinch the nomination -- in essence, moving the goal line in the nominating process.

Under current Democratic rules, a candidate needs 2,024 delegates to win the nomination, and Obama emerged from Tuesday’s voting less than 200 delegates from that goal.

But Clinton has started to argue that 2,209 delegates are needed to win.

Her claim is that the party should seat the disputed delegations from Florida and Michigan, which were stripped of participating in the nomination fight as punishment for moving their primary election dates earlier than allowed. That argument, of course, benefits Clinton, who won both states handily and would win a large share of their combined 366 delegates, allowing her to dig into Obama’s lead.

Both campaigns are sure to pore over exit poll data today as they make their case to the party’s superdelegates.

The Clinton camp will point to her continued strength among blue-collar workers and white voters without college degrees as proof that she would pose the stiffer challenge to McCain. It will show superdelegates that her support from gun owners and seniors makes her a stronger candidate in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania.

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Obama’s camp will certainly point to his proven ability to energize the black vote -- Obama won more than 90% of African Americans in both states -- and to draw new and younger voters to the polls. And it will argue that Obama’s success Tuesday, winning easily in North Carolina and running close in Indiana, proves he survived the controversy over his former pastor’s racially explosive remarks.

But even before the polls closed Tuesday, the debate over those demographics was giving way to a new battle within the more Byzantine world of convention rules and delegate selection procedures.

Looming larger than the remaining primary votes in states including West Virginia, Oregon and South Dakota is a May 31 meeting in Washington, D.C., in which a key Democratic Party committee will decide how to handle the disputed delegations from Florida and Michigan.

Activists from both states are challenging last year’s decision to strip the states of seats at the nominating convention. The Clinton campaign is pressuring the committee to reinstate the states’ delegates, and to use the January primary results in those states to decide the breakdown.

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The Obama camp says this amounts to changing the rules in the middle of the game.

“To turn the entire process on its head is what’s called attempting to steal the nomination,” said Obama supporter Allan Katz, a Florida lawyer who sits on the party’s rules committee and is likely to play a role in the next phase of the nominating fight.

He added that the Clinton camp’s push to use those results was “disingenuous, at best,” because Obama did not appear on the Jan. 15 Michigan ballot and did not campaign in Florida before its Jan. 29 primary -- “and at worst would make [GOP strategist] Karl Rove blush, if such a thing is possible.”

Clinton appears to have some built-in advantages on the 30-member committee. Two of its members are campaign staffers, including rules guru Harold Ickes, and both are prepared to vote to reinstate Florida and Michigan, even though they voted last year to strip the delegations.

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Thirteen of the committee members have endorsed Clinton’s candidacy, whereas eight have endorsed Obama. Nine remain neutral.

The committee has the freedom on May 31 to improvise. It could vote to seat the full delegations, to seat just half their members, or to admit only superdelegates from each state. And the committee may also decide how each delegation would be determined, possibly creating an alternative to using the election results in the two states.

Several committee members and other party insiders predicted Tuesday that the committee is most likely to seat half of the delegations, a decision that would give Clinton a net gain, but not enough to change the outcome of the nomination.

Clinton could then appeal in July to a larger committee, with power over who gets admitted to the August convention. The full membership of that so-called credentialing committee is not yet known, and it is not clear which candidate would have the upper hand.

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“They’re trying to give themselves all the altitude they can,” said Alice Germond, an uncommitted superdelegate on the rules committee.

“If we find ourselves in a polarized, bitter kind of meeting,” she said, “I don’t think it will speak well for how we as leaders of our party help pull the party back together.”

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peter.wallsten@latimes.com

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