Unable to revive her presidential campaign at the polls, Hillary Rodham Clinton now envisions a road to the nomination built on disputes over Democratic Party rules and fights over delegate selections. But on Wednesday even that route looked unattainable, with some key party officials warning that they would not cooperate with Clinton's strategy.
The party leaders' comments came as they digested Tuesday night's election results from Indiana and North Carolina -- results that extended Barack Obama's lead over Clinton in both the popular vote and nominating delegates and led some to conclude that the New York senator simply could not catch up.
The Democratic leaders' reaction suggested that setbacks for Clinton's new strategy could come as early as May 31, when a party committee meets to consider the dispute over delegates from Florida and Michigan. Under party rules adopted before the campaign began, the two states were stripped of their delegates as punishment for holding their primaries earlier than allowed.
Clinton won the states and wants them included, a move that would help her cut into Obama's lead and extend the number of delegates needed to clinch the nomination. Obama's campaign views the strategy as an unfair attempt to move the goal line. Obama's name was not on the Michigan ballot, and neither campaigned in Florida.
Several party officials said Wednesday that they did not support the Clinton strategy of reinstating the states' entire delegations.
"I don't let my political feelings interfere with what I believe to be right and just under the rules," said Clinton supporter Garry Shay, a Democratic National Committee member from California who sits on the rules committee and plans to object to the Clinton proposal to count Florida and Michigan.
Other Democratic officials said Wednesday that they feared the political damage to the party if Clinton were to succeed in using the party apparatus to take the nomination from Obama, who has energized black voters and many other Democrats.
"I just think it's a really dangerous thing for the Democratic Party to now go back and say, 'Well, [Florida and Michigan] broke the rules, but on the other hand, we need them,' " said R. Keith Roark, the Idaho state party chairman and an uncommitted superdelegate to the national convention. "If they were being used, they'd be used to deny the nomination to an African American who followed the rules. It's inconceivable to me that we would want to do that," he said.
The dispute has lingered for months, ever since the two states flouted DNC rules and moved up their primaries to January. Together, the two states account for 366 delegates to the party convention -- about 150 more than are at stake in the six nominating contests that remain.
Clinton has long supported reversing the penalty, but for most of the year each campaign has agreed that the winning candidate would be the first to secure 2,025 delegates -- a majority when Michigan and Florida are excluded. Obama is within 200 delegates of that mark. This week, Clinton began focusing on a different number -- 2,209 delegates, which would constitute a majority if the Florida and Michigan delegates were included.
Harold M. Ickes, a Clinton strategist who sits on the DNC's rules committee, said he would argue that Florida and Michigan had been punished enough by the rules that prevented the candidates from campaigning there, and that the party needs to curry favor with voters in these two general-election battlegrounds.
Ickes said that seating Florida and Michigan -- and assigning delegates according to the January voting -- was part of a broader strategy to bring Clinton within 100 delegates of Obama. Then she would continue to press her case with superdelegates -- party insiders whose votes will decide the nomination -- that they should give her the nomination because she could pose a stiffer challenge to presumptive GOP nominee John McCain.
The rules committee offers the Clinton campaign some built-in advantages. Thirteen members have endorsed her, and just eight are declared Obama backers. One of the committee chairs is Alexis M. Herman, Labor secretary under President Clinton.
The committee has wide latitude concerning Florida and Michigan. It could uphold the rules and punishment, seat the entire delegation from each state, split the delegations in half, or even seat all of the superdelegates but only some of the elected delegates.
Shay, the rules committee member from California, predicted that he would vote to seat all of Florida's superdelegates and half of its elected delegates. That would give Clinton a net gain of only nine to 16 delegates -- not enough to make a significant dent in Obama's delegate lead.
Any decision reached May 31 could be appealed to a much larger committee that takes power in late June. And the fight could continue to the convention floor in August.
Even some Clinton supporters concede that she will be hard-pressed to succeed.
William Galston, a former policy advisor to President Clinton, wrote Wednesday that it looked as if the nomination was Obama's for the taking, adding that "it is hard to see how the Clinton forces can use the Democratic Party's rules committee to force a resolution of the Michigan and Florida dilemmas over the objections of the Obama campaign."