WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The grueling Democratic presidential nominating race moves on Saturday from the campaign trail to a Washington hotel, where party officials will hunt for a compromise over disputed contests in Michigan and Florida.
An all-day meeting of the party’s rules committee will feature plenty of political drama as Democrats try to resolve one of the last stumbling blocks to concluding the nominating race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Clinton supporters have promised demonstrations outside the gathering, which could be her last chance to halt Obama’s march to the Democratic nomination. Hundreds of public tickets to the meeting were snapped up online in minutes.
At issue is the rules committee’s decision last year to strip Michigan and Florida of their delegates to the August nominating convention because they held nominating contests, both won by Clinton, earlier than allowed by party rules.
Clinton has demanded all the delegates be seated and apportioned based on the results — even though there was no campaigning in either state and Obama was not on the Michigan ballot.
That would give her a significant boost in the popular vote tally and draw her closer to Obama in the delegate count as she tries to convince superdelegates — party officials who can back any candidate — that she is more electable than Obama in the November general election.
“The pledged delegates in the two states must fairly reflect the popular vote,” said Harold Ickes, a Clinton campaign aide and rules committee member.
But Obama is close to clinching the nomination and could have the 2,026 delegates he needs on Tuesday, when Montana and South Dakota hold the last contests. Adding Florida and Michigan’s delegates to the mix would boost the number of delegates needed to win the nomination to 2,210.
Officials from both campaigns, the state and national parties and the rules committee have been discussing potential compromises. Some Democrats said on Wednesday the party was closing in on a solution to seat half of the delegates from each state — a proposal strongly opposed by the Clinton campaign.
“I believe there is a compromise to be hammered out,” said rules committee member Allan Katz of Florida, an Obama supporter. “It might be one of those compromises that leaves everyone a little dissatisfied, which is probably a sign of a good compromise.”
If the rules panel cannot reach a suitable compromise, the dispute heads to the party’s credentials committee in July and ultimately to the convention floor — a doomsday scenario party officials desperately hope to avoid.
Clinton campaign officials refused to discuss on Wednesday whether they would appeal any decision they did not like.
Clinton, a New York senator, has cast the dispute in dramatic voting rights terms, visiting Florida last week to evoke comparisons to the state’s recount in the disputed 2000 presidential election and even Zimbabwe’s disputed election.
Obama, an Illinois senator, says he is willing to compromise in hopes of unifying the party and moving on to the general election campaign against Republican John McCain.
“We’re open to a result that will net her delegates, which we think is a pretty major concession given how hard we have fought for delegates,” Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said.
Democratic National Committee lawyers sent an advisory memo to rules committee members on Tuesday saying they were within their rights to strip the two states of their delegates. It also said the panel could seat half of each delegation.
The panel will hear three challenges. The two Florida challenges seek the seating of half of the pledged convention delegates and all of the state’s superdelegates, and the Michigan challenge would award 69 pledged delegates to Clinton and 59 for Obama.
Katz said the committee wanted to be fair to both campaigns while being mindful of the need to follow party rules preventing a mad rush of states to hold their contests earlier and earlier in the process.
The committee approved contests in only four states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — before February 5 during this year’s nominating race.
“In the end this is going to get worked out,” Katz said. “There is a strong desire to get those delegates seated at the convention.”
(Editing by David Wiessler)
To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/