Sorting the Michigan-Florida mess

Times Staff Writer

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama renew their skirmishing Saturday in a hotel ballroom in Washington, D.C. -- this time over votes that have already been cast.

The balloting in Florida and Michigan was nullified because the two states held their primaries earlier than allowed under Democratic Party rules. Clinton, who won the most votes in both states, is fighting to have the results recognized and the Florida and Michigan delegations seated at the Democratic National Convention in August. Doing so would cut -- but not erase -- Obama's delegate lead.

Not surprisingly, he objects to Clinton's proposal but has indicated a willingness to reach a compromise that would give Florida and Michigan some say at the convention. Neither of the candidates contested Florida, and Obama took his name off the Michigan ballot. The dispute is being weighed by the party's Rules and Bylaws Committee.

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How did the Democrats get to this point?

For years, states had been scheduling their primaries increasingly early. To slow this front-loading trend and ensure Iowa and New Hampshire their traditional slots at the front of the calendar, 300 members of the Democratic National Committee voted in August 2006 to approve a schedule that allowed four states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina -- to vote in January 2008. The rest of the states were told they had to wait until at least Feb. 5 to hold their primaries or caucuses.

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So what happened?

Politicians and Democratic activists in Michigan and Florida were unhappy with the party-sanctioned calendar, believing it gave too much clout to smaller states. So they scheduled their primaries in defiance of the rules. Michigan voted Jan. 15 and Florida on Jan. 29.

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How did the candidates respond when Michigan and Florida broke the rules?

At the time, they were courting voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, two states that hold sacred their early voting slots. So to show their support, the top Democratic contenders -- including Clinton and Obama -- signed a pledge vowing not to campaign in Michigan or Florida. All of them, except Clinton and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, removed their names from the Michigan ballot. "It's clear, this election [that Michigan is] having is not going to count for anything," Clinton told New Hampshire Public Radio last fall.

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If rules are rules, and the two states were clearly in violation, why the talk now about seating Michigan and Florida?

Because both are important to Democratic chances of winning the White House in November and nobody in the party wants to risk antagonizing voters there by exiling their delegates. In truth, most expected the nominating fight to have been long settled by now, which would have allowed the winner to make a magnanimous gesture to accommodate delegates and end the problem without all this fuss.

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What are the issues before the rules committee?

There are two. The first involves whether to seat 368 delegates from the renegade states along with 49 superdelegates, and if so, how. Party legal experts issued a memo this week advising that, under party rules, committee members can restore no more than half of the states' convention delegates. So if the panel decided to recognize Florida and Michigan, it could allow the states to send half of their delegates to the convention. Or it could seat all of the delegates and give each half a vote. The second -- and far trickier -- issue is how to divvy up those delegates between Clinton and Obama.

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What does each side want?

Clinton wants the delegates seated in accord with the January vote. That seems unlikely. The Obama camp has said it would be willing to give Clinton the bulk of the delegates, but not "too many."

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Why is Clinton fighting so hard to reinstate the results?

As a matter of principle, she says, it is important that every vote is counted and no one feels disenfranchised.

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Any other reason?

There are political considerations. Clinton hopes to slash Obama's delegate lead, now 200 in the Associated Press count, to help press her case with about 200 uncommitted superdelegates. The superdelegates -- members of Congress and other party insiders and activists who have an automatic vote at the convention -- hold the nomination in their hands because neither candidate stands to win outright with just the delegates chosen in primaries and caucuses. If the gap is small enough, Clinton can assert that the race is essentially tied and perhaps convince superdelegates that she would be the stronger general election candidate. Recognizing the Florida and Michigan results would also narrow Obama's lead in the popular vote, with three contests remaining: Sunday in Puerto Rico and Tuesday in Montana and South Dakota. Although the nomination is awarded on the basis of delegates, not raw votes, a narrower gap -- or a Clinton lead in the popular vote -- could further buttress her case to superdelegates.

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How many delegates does it take to win the nomination?

As of now, 2,026 -- a total that excludes Florida and Michigan. By that yardstick, Obama reached an important milestone May 20, when he won a majority of pledged delegates, or those awarded on the basis of election returns. Adding in superdelegates, he needs 44 delegates to reach 2,026 and clinch the nomination. That number will change if Florida and Michigan are recognized in some fashion.

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Who sits on the rules committee?

The 30 members have been appointed over the years by various national committee chairmen. Thirteen of the members have endorsed Clinton, eight have backed Obama and nine are uncommitted. The members include Harold M. Ickes, a top strategist for the Clinton campaign, who supported the original sanctions against Florida and Michigan but is now seeking to reverse that decision.

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How long is the meeting expected to last?

That's unclear. The party has set aside the morning for oral arguments. There will be presentations by the Clinton and Obama camps and representatives of both states. The afternoon has been set aside for "consideration and debate." Committee members have been advised to keep their hotel rooms Saturday night in case the discussion spills over into Sunday.

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So once the rules committee decides, that's that?

Not necessarily. An aggrieved party can appeal the ruling to the party's 186-member Credentials Committee, which would meet in July or August. The Credentials Committee can restore 100% of the delegates, according to party lawyers. But any decision by that committee would have to be approved by the full convention in Denver -- raising the prospect of a potentially damaging floor fight instead of the unity-fest that most Democrats would prefer.

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Can I watch the Rules Committee meeting?

C-SPAN plans to broadcast the hearing live, and it will be streamed at www.democrats .org, beginning at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time. The public was invited -- and all 500 seats in the ballroom were snapped up in minutes. Demonstrations are planned outside the hotel, with Clinton sympathizers hoping for a huge show of support. The Obama campaign has urged his supporters to stand down, saying it does not wish to escalate tensions. Inside, audience members have been forbidden to carry signs or banners, distribute fliers, make noise or ask questions.

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What is the rules committee likely to do?

Probably agree to a compromise in which a portion of delegates from the two states will be divided between Clinton and Obama. But who knows? Most of the smart people -- or people who seemed smart at the time -- thought the nominating fight would have been over a long time ago.

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mark.barabak@latimes.com

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