By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 31, 2008
When Democratic Party leaders voted on Aug. 25, 2007, to sanction Florida Democrats for moving up the date of their presidential primary, no one anticipated that the decision would lead to a tense showdown that will help decide the outcome of the nomination battle between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Today, the 30 members of the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee will hear challenges to that decision and a later ruling, which together barred delegations from Florida and Michigan from the national convention in Denver because those states violated the party's rules governing the nomination process.
Democrats on and off the committee said yesterday that a compromise appears likely that would restore half of the delegations from each state, although the precise terms remained under discussion. "It's clear something's going to be worked out," said Carol Fowler, the party chair in South Carolina and a member of the rules committee. Fowler is also an Obama supporter but was not speaking for the campaign.
Among the unresolved issues is how to allocate the delegates between the two candidates, particularly delegates from Michigan, where Clinton's name was on the ballot in the Jan. 15 primary but Obama's was not. There was growing talk yesterday that the committee could agree to split the state's delegates evenly between Clinton and Obama, a blow to Clinton.
In determining the allocation of delegates from Florida, the committee appears likely to use the results of the state's primary on Jan. 29.
Clinton will gain more delegates than Obama under almost any outcome, but there is widespread agreement that nothing the committee is likely to do will change the nomination battle's trajectory, which now has Obama moving steadily toward victory.
But after months of sparring and bad feelings between the two camps, the real question is whether both sides -- and the two states -- are prepared to accept what the committee decides, or will instead take their grievances to the party's credentials committee next month or possibly to the convention in August.
"What's at stake is whether this nominating process will come to a quick conclusion in a way that unifies the party, or whether it will drag on for weeks and perhaps months in a way that threatens party unity and potentially hurts the nominee and the party," said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist and veteran of rules battles.
Clinton will send her team to today's meeting with a demand that the full delegations from both states be seated in Denver, that each of those delegates be given a full vote and that the delegates be allocated strictly on the basis of the results of the two primaries. But while she has drawn a hard line in the pre-meeting maneuvering, her advisers stopped short yesterday of threatening to take the fight beyond today.
"We think it's not useful to cross streams before we come to them," said Harold Ickes, who oversees Clinton's delegate operations and is also a member of the DNC's rules committee.
The story of how the Democrats got to this moment is a tale of personal egos, state pride, institutional integrity and raw political maneuvering. Its beginning dates back many years, and is rooted in competition between political leaders in Michigan, led by Sen. Carl M. Levin, who think their state should have a larger role in the nominating process; and those in New Hampshire, who have zealously guarded their state's first-in-the-nation primary.
Levin, who will present Michigan's case today, said in an interview Thursday night that he is prepared to carry on the fight if his state's full delegation is not seated in Denver with full voting rights, arguing that any other outcome would be appealed to the credentials committee.
Levin has proved to be a skilled and relentless proponent of dislodging New Hampshire and Iowa from what he sees as their privileged position as the states that kick off the nominating calendar. He was the catalyst behind the creation of a commission, authorized at the 2004 Democratic convention, to study and reform the nominating calendar for 2008.
The commission met for a year and ended up reaffirming Iowa's and New Hampshire's traditional roles. It also proposed adding Nevada and South Carolina to the early round of voting to encourage regional and ethnic diversity. But the panel, in a decision blessed by the rules committee, stated its determination to keep other states from scheduling their contests before Feb. 5, 2008.
In Florida, however, Republicans in control of the governor's mansion and the legislature decided to move the state's primary from Feb. 5 to Jan. 29, to break away from what was becoming a virtual national primary of nearly two dozen states. How hard Democrats resisted remains in dispute. State Democratic Chair Karen L. Thurman said: "We didn't have the votes to [block] it. No matter what happened, this bill would have become law."
Florida's move triggered a reaction from Republicans in South Carolina, who were determined to preserve their tradition of holding the first Southern contest of significance. They announced they would shift their contest from Feb. 2 to Jan. 19.
Katon Dawson, the sometimes flamboyant South Carolina GOP chair, made the announcement in New Hampshire. Standing with him at that Aug. 9 news conference was New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner, who said the decision would trigger his state's law requiring that its primary be held a week before any similar contest. That meant New Hampshire's primary would be, at a minimum, more than a week before the DNC had established in its original timetable.
Two weeks later, the party's Rules and Bylaws Committee voted to bar Florida's delegation from the convention.
Levin marks the Dawson-Gardner news conference as the trigger for his state's decision to move its contest from Feb. 9 to Jan. 15. In his view, Michigan had agreed to abide by the DNC's calendar, provided all other states did, as well.
Once New Hampshire indicated it would move, Michigan indicated it would do the same -- and on Dec. 1, 2007, the DNC's rules committee barred Michigan's delegates from the convention. Levin contends that New Hampshire should have been sanctioned as well for moving its date, but party officials say New Hampshire had the authority to do what it did.
The Republican National Committee, dealing with a similar problem, cut violating states' delegations in half and moved on. The Democrats, determined to send a tough message to other states that might have been contemplating further moves up the calendar, inflicted the maximum penalty of a total ban.
Eager to please the early states, particularly Iowa and New Hampshire, the Democratic presidential candidates agreed in September to a request from party chairs in those two states, as well as in South Carolina and Nevada, that they not campaign in Michigan or Florida. A month later, Obama and several other Democrats removed their names from the Michigan ballot. Clinton did not.
Speaking to New Hampshire Public Radio, Clinton said: "It's clear, this election they're having [in Michigan] is not going to count for anything. But I just personally did not want to set up a situation where the Republicans are going to be campaigning between now and whenever, and then after the nomination, we have to go in and repair the damage to be ready to win Michigan in 2008."
Still, even at the end of last year, few Democrats, including the candidates, anticipated how much these decisions would come back to haunt them. They assumed that there would be an early resolution of the nomination battle and that the nominee, in a magnanimous act, would agree to seat the delegations.
Clinton won Michigan with 54 percent of the vote. The choice of "Uncommitted" was second, with 40 percent. In Florida, all names remained on the ballot, and Clinton won with 50 percent to Obama's 33 percent. About 1.7 million people voted in Florida's primary and about 600,000 in Michigan's, though the candidates did not campaign in either state.
Soon after it became clear that every contest could be crucial to the outcome of the Democratic race, Clinton seized on the two states, in part to bolster her contention that she won more popular votes, even though she trailed in the delegate count. Obama accused her of trying to change the rules.
Now it is left to the same committee that imposed the original sanctions to find a solution that preserves the DNC's power to police its nominating process, and one that still finds peace between the warring campaigns and with two key battleground states.