WASHINGTON—The Democratic Party searched for a compromise over disputed convention delegates from Florida and Michigan Saturday in what could be Hillary Clinton's last chance to gain ground on presidential rival Barack Obama.
The party's rules committee waded into the explosive controversy over the two delegations, which are barred from the August nominating convention in a dispute Clinton has made a rallying cry for her nomination bid.
Hundreds of demonstrators, mostly Clinton supporters, jammed sidewalks outside the hotel where the meeting was held, holding homemade signs demanding the delegations be seated at the convention. "Count our Florida votes," read one sign.
"This is probably the largest rules and bylaws committee meeting we have ever had," co-chairwoman Alexis Herman said to laughter as the meeting opened.
Clinton faces an uphill battle in the 30-member panel to win her demand that the delegations be seated at the convention with full voting rights. Obama supports alternatives that would seat fewer delegates.
At issue is a rules committee decision last year to strip Michigan and Florida of their delegates because they held nominating contests, both won by Clinton, earlier than party rules allowed.
"We need to respect the 48 states who did not violate the rules," Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean told the committee.
Dean and panel members held a private dinner on Friday that went well past midnight with no decisions reached. Committee members appeared to be close to a compromise that would seat half of the delegations from each state—a solution that would give Clinton a net gain in delegates, but not all that she is seeking.
"We need to come together and unite this party," Dean said. "Part of that healing will begin today with a very spirited discussion, I'm sure, about Michigan and Florida."
Clinton signed a pledge along with the other candidates not to campaign in either state, and Obama took his name off the Michigan ballot. Since winning both contests, Clinton has pressed for the results to be recognized.
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 race against Republican John McCain.
Obama Nears Nomination
Obama is close to clinching the nomination and could have the 2,026 delegates he needs Tuesday, when Montana and South Dakota hold the last contests. But adding Florida's and Michigan's delegates to the mix would boost the number of delegates needed to win the nomination to 2,210.
A compromise that seated half of the delegates from each state, or all the delegates with one-half vote each, would move the magic number to 2,118.
The committee would still need to determine how to allocate the delegates between the two candidates. Clinton has argued that Obama should get no delegates from Michigan, where he was not on the ballot.
The Clinton campaign says seating half the delegations is unacceptable. It has not said whether it would appeal the move to the party's credentials committee in July and ultimately to the convention floor in Denver -- a scenario that party officials desperately want to avoid.
"We will cross those streams when we come to them, but we fully expect they will do the right thing and seat full delegations with full votes," Clinton adviser Harold Ickes, a rules committee member, said of the panel.
Clinton, a New York senator, has cast the dispute in dramatic voting rights terms, visiting Florida last week to compare it to the state's recount in the 2000 presidential election and even Zimbabwe's disputed election in March.
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 McCain.
The panel was hearing challenges from Florida seeking to seat half of the pledged convention delegates and all of the state's superdelegates. A challenge from Michigan asks the panel to give 69 pledged delegates to Clinton and 59 to Obama.
The committee, which has 13 Clinton supporters on it, is free to arrive at its own solution. Members have said they want to be fair to both campaigns and mindful of the need to follow party rules to prevent a mad rush of states to hold contests earlier and earlier in the process.
The committee approved contests in only four states—Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina—before Feb. 5 during this year's nominating race.