Tuesday, February 19, 2008

At first blush, the Democratic National Convention’s Credentials Committee, facing an impasse over the disputed Michigan and Florida delegations, looks like it could be in Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s hip pocket. Its three chairmen served in Bill Clinton’s administration.

Alexis Herman was secretary of labor; James Roosevelt Jr. was associate commissioner in the Social Security Administration; and Eliseo Roques-Arroyo, a native of Puerto Rico, was the White House’s travel consultant.

But the 186-member committee, one of whose tasks is accrediting delegates to choose the party’s presidential nominee, comes from the party’s grass roots. Twenty-five of them were appointed by Howard Dean, the Democratic National Committee chairman, with all the rest from state parties and other jurisdictions, largely evenly divided in their support for Mrs. Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama.

Still, unless Mr. Dean and party leaders can fashion a solution to the contested delegations, this obscure panel may find itself at the center of a political war over primary rules that stripped Florida and Michigan of their 366 delegates and that could be fought out in a showdown, roll-call vote of the states on the convention floor in Denver in August.

With Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama in an ever-tightening race for the 2,025 delegates needed for the Democratic nomination, the possibility of a compromise to seat the two states at the national convention grew more problematic because either one of the delegations could be the deciding factor.

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who will chair the convention, says neither delegation should be seated if they turned out to be the deciding factor in determining the party’s standard-bearer.

“I don’t think that any states that operated outside the rules of the party can be dispositive of who the nominee is. That is to say they can’t make the difference because then we would have no rules,” the California Democrat said in an interview with Bloomberg television.

Surrogates for the two rivals have begun staking out positions in the dispute that could give their candidate an advantage in the delegate hunt.

Harold Ickes, a veteran party official and senior adviser to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, who voted for the rules that sanctioned the two states for moving their primaries into January in violation of the party’s nominating schedule, now says the penalties should be lifted.

In a conference call with reporters Saturday, Mr. Ickes said the Democratic National Committee should rescind its ruling, arguing that it would be disenfranchising millions of Florida and Michigan voters — two pivotal states that could provide their party with the electoral votes needed to win back the White House.

Mrs. Clinton has a big stake in admitting the two delegations. She won Michigan last month with 55 percent of the vote after Mr. Obama and other candidates took their names off the ballot at the DNC’s urging in an agreement by all of the contenders not to campaign in the unsanctioned state. Mrs. Clinton kept her name on the ballot, but “uncommitted” drew 40 percent of the vote.

In Florida, Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama and John Edwards were on the ballot but, bowing to DNC pressure, did not campaign there. Mrs. Clinton won with 50 percent of the vote, followed by Mr. Obama with 33 percent and Mr. Edwards with 14 percent.

But both primaries, as far as the DNC is concerned, were beauty contests without any delegate prizes. If Michigan and Florida had kept to their original primary dates in February and March respectively, Michigan would have 156 delegates and Florida would have 210.

Other problems posed themselves. If the states are seated, how will their delegates be fairly apportioned among the candidates who did not campaign in either state? Neither state has petitioned the DNC to hold another contest, as required by the rules, and the cost of another election is prohibitive. The idea of holding cheaper caucuses has been raised, but neither state has had any experience in the complicated and low-turnout caucus system.

Even so, Democratic Party strategist Donna Brazile thinks that “at the end of the day, there will be delegations from those states, but it’s highly unlikely the votes exist to alter the rules in the middle of the game.”

Many party officials still hold out hope that one of the front-runners will eventually pull ahead in the delegate race and clinch the nomination without Florida or Michigan.

“There are more than a thousand delegates still at stake, so it’s premature to speculate at this point,” said DNC spokesman Stacie Paxton.

As of Saturday, the delegate count stood at about 1,280 for Mr. Obama and 1,218 for Mrs. Clinton, including superdelegates — elected officials and party leaders not bound to support the candidate chosen by voters in their districts — whose potential role in deciding the race also has raised concern among Democrats.

Mr. Obama says the superdelegates should not overturn the will of voters.

Mrs. Clinton says they are supposed to select the candidate they deem best for the position.

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