The last Democratic presidential primaries take place Tuesday, but an obscure panel of 30 party insiders now finds itself in the strongest position to determine whether the long nominating process will come to a smooth conclusion.
Meeting at a Washington hotel Saturday, the party's Rules and Bylaws Committee will attempt to settle a lingering dispute about whether delegates from Michigan and Florida should be seated at the party's convention in August.
Both campaigns and thousands of voters have been lobbying the committee members, who are used to working in anonymity. E-mail messages are flooding in. The 500 tickets set aside for spectators were snapped up within three minutes on the Internet.
At stake are the 368 delegates from Michigan and Florida, who were disqualified because those states held their primaries in January, earlier than allowed by party rules. Under the outcome Hillary Rodham Clinton has called for in recent weeks, she would pick up 111 more delegates than Barack Obama. That would narrow his lead in the delegate count and might position Clinton to argue to the party's superdelegates that they should throw the nomination to her.
But there is little support on the committee for giving the New York senator everything she wants. That leaves the panel with a second challenge: bringing Clinton, Obama and Democratic officials together in an agreement that unites the party and keeps bruised feelings to a minimum.
Should Clinton or her supporters come away feeling she was treated unfairly, they may prolong their argument all the way to the convention and hesitate to get behind Obama if the Illinois senator becomes the nominee. That outcome would leave the party weakened in its general election battle against John McCain, the presumed Republican nominee.
Privately, aides to both Clinton and Obama say they prefer to see the issue settled this weekend.
A resolution would be "an important step toward our unity," said Alice Germond, secretary of the Democratic National Committee and a member of the rules panel. "We want ultimately to resolve it so we can stop talking about the process at the beginning of June and start talking about our nominee."
"We want this to be the final stop on this train," said a DNC official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We don't want to see this challenged again. That just extends the pain."
Committee members are receiving a level of attention they neither imagined nor particularly wanted. One, Garry Shay, a former chairman of the Los Angeles Democratic Party, said he was receiving as many as 500 e-mails a day, which he tries to read and answer. "It's horrible; it's horrible," he said.
Summarizing the correspondence, Shay said: "Some of it is very emotional. Some is very dry and rules-based. Some of it is short. Some is very long and detailed, and some is threatening, as in, 'I won't vote for the other guy.' "
Clinton loyalists are expected to demonstrate outside the hotel. The Obama campaign has urged its supporters to stand down. "We don't think it's a helpful dynamic to create chaos," said David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager. "In the interest of party unity, we're encouraging our supporters not to protest."
In advance of the meeting, national Democratic Party leaders have been trying to hash out a compromise with the Clinton and Obama campaigns and with representatives of Michigan and Florida.
Even Clinton supporters on the rules panel insist that some form of punishment is necessary for Michigan and Florida. The two states violated party rules by scheduling their primaries early, prompting the top Democratic candidates to avoid campaigning there. Obama and several others withdrew their names from the Michigan ballot; Clinton's name remained on the ballot.
One possible sanction would reduce the voting power of Michigan and Florida at the convention by giving their delegates half a vote each. That idea has gained support within the rules committee.
In their public postures, the Obama and Clinton campaigns are far apart. Clinton wants the delegates awarded in conformity with the January election results, which would give her 111 delegates more than Obama's take.
That outcome would still leave Clinton trailing Obama in the delegate count. She is currently behind by 201 delegates, with 1,981 for Obama and 1,780 for Clinton.
Clinton would not close the gap with Obama even if she got what she wanted from the rules committee and went on to perform spectacularly in the final primaries, in Puerto Rico on Sunday and in South Dakota and Montana on Tuesday. (A candidate needs 2,026 delegates to win the nomination, but that number would rise Saturday if the party agreed to count the Michigan and Florida results in some fashion.)
One Clinton supporter on the rules panel, who asked not to be named in order to be able to discuss the matter candidly, conceded that there was virtually no outcome in the committee that could lead to a Clinton victory.
"It's not going to make a difference," the Clinton ally said. "At the end of the day, what we do on Saturday is not going to change the fact that Obama is going to win the nomination."
Even so, Clinton sees a path to victory. Her strategy is to narrow the delegate gap to a point that she can say that the race has ended in a tossup, and that superdelegates should choose her as the stronger nominee in the matchup with McCain.
If superdelegates found that argument convincing, they could conceivably flock to Clinton in numbers large enough to hand her the nomination. Toward that end, the Clinton campaign sent letters to superdelegates Wednesday, summarizing her qualifications and offering color-coded maps and polling data to support the contention that she is the best bet to defeat McCain.
In a conference call with reporters, her aides gave no hint that she would be willing to bend on her demand that the Michigan and Florida delegates be seated.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), a Clinton supporter, said in an interview that there would be "varying degrees of disappointment" if Florida wound up with less than a full delegation. "Anything short of that is pointless," she said. "The nerves in Florida are still very raw when it comes to the question of counting our votes."
Obama is open to some compromise on seating disputed delegates, aides said. Plouffe declined specify how far the Obama campaign would bend, but said: "We're not going to support something that gives her too many delegates. We're open to a result that gives her delegates, which we think is a pretty major concession, as hard as we've fought for delegates."
With Obama so close to wrapping up the nomination, some Clinton supporters said it was in his interests to cede ground in this final skirmish.
"If I were giving advice to Sen. Obama, I would tell him that he has won the nomination and this is a time for magnanimity and healing," said William A. Galston, a Brookings Institution political analyst and former aide to the Clinton White House.
Several creative compromises have been floated.
Shay suggested checking whether anyone in the Florida delegation is a state legislator who voted in favor of moving up the state primary. If so, they could be barred from the convention.
Donald Fowler, a committee member and Clinton backer from South Carolina, suggested a way to sanction the states without discounting their votes. "Deny them passes to the convention for friends and spouses, and put them in sorry hotels," he said. "Reduce their overall representation in the 2012 convention. Reaching a consensus on that would be somewhat difficult, but there are sanctions other than denying them a part or all of that vote."
Asked if Obama could go along with that, a spokesman, Bill Burton, declined to comment.
Times staff writer Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.
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At a glance
What: Democratic National Committee Rules and Bylaws Committee meeting
When: Saturday, 6:30 a.m. PDT
Where: Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, Washington
TV coverage: The meeting is scheduled to be carried on C-SPAN and streamed live on the DNC website
Source: Los Angeles Times