Top Democrat wants party contest decided by July 1

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Democratic Party chairman said on Friday he hopes the increasingly contentious rivalry between presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton can be decided by July 1 to avoid a fight at the party’s convention.

US Democratic presidential candidates Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) square off in the last debate before the Ohio primary in Cleveland, Ohio, February 26, 2008. REUTERS/Matt Sullivan

Howard Dean, former Vermont governor and a presidential candidate in 2004, urged the two candidates to focus on the November general election battle against Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the likely Republican presidential nominee.

“I think it would be nice to have this all done by July 1,” Dean said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” program. “If we can do it sooner than that, that’s all the better.

“There has been some personal criticism,” he said. “We don’t want this to degenerate into a big fight at the convention.”

Dean told CNN he believes Democratic delegates from Michigan and Florida will eventually be seated at the party’s August nominating convention in Denver.

The Democratic primary elections in Michigan and Florida were invalidated after both states disobeyed party rules and held their balloting earlier in the year to hold greater sway over the selection of candidates.

Efforts to rerun the two primaries have failed.

“I think the delegates are eventually going to be seated in Florida and Michigan as soon as we get an agreement between the candidates on how to do that,” Dean said.

Obama, an Illinois senator, has captured more state primaries, more votes and thus more of the pledged convention delegates who will help decide which Democrat faces McCain in November’s presidential election.

But Clinton, a New York senator, has won contests in several large states and hopes to persuade the party’s superdelegates that she will be the stronger general election candidate.

Superdelegates -- party officials not pledged to a particular candidate -- have emerged as likely kingmakers in the fight between Clinton and Obama.

Dean said he wants superdelegates to speak publicly about whom they support so that the loser would feel fairly treated.

“The candidates have got to understand that they have an obligation to our country to unify,” Dean said in another interview on CBS’ “Early Show.” “Somebody is going to lose this race with 49.8 percent of the vote and that person has got to pull their supporters in behind the nominee.”

Editing by Doina Chiacu