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Archive for Saturday, February 2, 2008

Close race could trigger delegate battle

February 2, 2008

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Barack Obama's campaign said it didn't matter. Network commentators said it didn't matter. The Democratic National Committee said it didn't matter.

But Florida's Democratic primary, though awarding no delegates, did matter - and could matter more in the future.

That was clear when Hillary Clinton appeared before cheering supporters in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Davie on Tuesday night and pledged to do "everything I can" to seat Florida's delegates at August's convention and put Florida "in the winning column" for Democrats in fall.

To be sure, there was a short-term calculation in her decision to visit a state Democratic candidates had shunned to back the national party's decision to withhold its delegates for violating the rules.

Coming just three days after Obama routed her in South Carolina, it enabled her to appear on television as a victor, even in a vote that ostensibly had no practical import. "Clinton and Obama tie for delegates in Florida," his campaign proclaimed, noting that neither won delegates Tuesday.

But Clinton was looking ahead. Her unmistakable signal: If the Democratic nominating battle goes to the convention, she will seek to seat delegates from both Florida and Michigan - where she won similarly two weeks ago - who give her an advantage by reflecting her strong primary showings.

Obama may have played into her hands by saying Sunday on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" that he backs the sanction the Democratic National Committee imposed because the two states refused to delay their primaries until February.

If their battle is not settled during the primaries, it could mean a credentials fight over whether to seat pro-Clinton Florida and Michigan delegations - with the nomination hanging in the balance.

It wouldn't be a first. Similar showdowns occurred in 1952 and 1972, and credential fights basically settled the battles between the top contenders.

In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower clinched the Republican nomination after his forces seated their Texas, Louisiana and Georgia delegations over factions backing his main rival, Ohio Sen. Robert Taft.

That victory had far-ranging implications: Not only did Eisenhower win the presidency and end 20 years of Democratic rule, but his key leaders in those states became federal appeals judges who played major roles in helping to desegregate the South.

In 1972, George McGovern's troops at the Democratic Convention repelled a challenge from rival Hubert Humphrey. He sought to split California's delegates proportionally, rather than having primary winner McGovern take all the delegates, as party rules permitted.

McGovern won that battle and the nomination, but, in one of history's worst defeats, lost 49 states to President Richard Nixon.

According to Mark Siegel, architect of the 1972 Humphrey challenge, the ultimate question won't be whether delegates from Florida or Michigan are seated but which ones.

"It's hard to believe that a national convention will not seat delegates from two purple states," he said, using the term for evenly divided states likely to be hotly contested in November.

Now associated with Texas-based Locke Lord Strategies, Siegel suggested "it's certainly possible that there will be two delegations from the two states - one resulting from the primary and the other from a caucus setup."

Then, Clinton would be able to argue that the more than 1.7 million Florida Democrats who voted in the primary should have more influence than what is likely to be a far smaller number in any caucus.

This scenario could emerge if neither candidate wins a decisive victory in the next five weeks, starting with Tuesday's battles in 22 states. That result may show up if Monday's endorsement from Sen. Edward Kennedy and Wednesday's withdrawal of Sen. John Edwards help Obama overcome the lead earlier polls showed for Clinton.

Anything like a draw Tuesday probably boosts Obama, who should do well in the Feb. 12 Potomac primary (Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia) before what may be a decisive showdown Feb. 19 in Wisconsin.

It's even possible the largely overlooked March 4 primaries in Texas and Ohio will determine if one candidate prevails or if the race goes on until August, when Clinton's Tuesday night display could give her a final, crucial boost.

- Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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