Pelosi Convention
Ira Schwarz  /  AP
Nancy Pelosi inspects a computer terminal on the floor of the Moscone Center in San Francisco during the 1984 Democratic National Convention.
updated 3/25/2008 6:16:24 PM ET 2008-03-25T22:16:24

Nancy Pelosi is scrambling to quell Democratic infighting. Two states broke the rules with earlier-than-allowed primaries, and two candidates are dueling for an advantage among superdelegates who could hold the key to the nomination.

Sound familiar? It was 1984, and the woman who is now Speaker of the House — and chair of this summer's national convention — was getting an early and sometimes painful education in how delegate rules can breed party strife.

Back then Pelosi, a rising star and fundraising powerhouse in California politics, headed the Compliance Review Commission, tasked with enforcing party rules. She was also playing host to the convention in San Francisco, with her image and that of her city on the line.

This year Pelosi is toiling to keep her distance from the party disputes and her public neutrality in the increasingly intense fight between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, but she has much more at stake.

Bitter divisions threaten to keep Democrats at odds right up to their Denver gathering, potentially hurting the eventual presidential nominee and undercutting the chances of Democratic candidates nationwide.

A prolonged dispute over how to deal with Michigan and Florida — which defied party rules to hold early contests and now face having their delegates shut out of the nominating process — shows no signs of a quick conclusion.

Democrats also are divided over the proper role of superdelegates — the elected officials and leaders who by party rules are free to support the candidate of their choice.

Clinton, who is ahead among the superdelegates, is counting on that edge to reverse Obama's lead among pledged delegates awarded through primaries and caucuses. Obama's camp argues — in a view shared by Pelosi — that the superdelegates should not overturn the will of the voters.

Keeping a distance?
Alluding to her 1984 experience, Pelosi has happily punted questions about what to do about Michigan and Florida to Howard Dean, the party chairman.

"I learned more about delegate selection rules at that time, which I considered information that I would never use again in my life. And I had a really big dose of it then, and I'd like to leave it to those whose responsibility it is now," Pelosi said this month.

Still, she conceded, "I am, as a matter of fact," the expert on party rules. Following them, she added, is "a good idea."

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"Nancy and I both well remember the agony that we went through (in 1984). We always take up knotty issues, as we may well again," said Charles T. Manatt, who was the party chairman then.

"She would look people in the eye and say, 'Here's what the rules say, and here's how we interpret the rules.' We defused most of it," Manatt added.

In advance of the 1984 convention, it fell to Pelosi to take a hard line against New Hampshire and Iowa as they threatened to — and then did — schedule their contests earlier than party rules allowed. She and Manatt staunchly argued that rules were rules, and refused to make an exception for the two states. Ultimately, though, the party caved and allowed the delegations to be seated.

Superdelegate samplingThis year, however, counting Michigan and Florida — where both candidates agreed not to participate but Clinton won — could well sway who gets the nomination. Clinton says the delegates should count; Obama says they shouldn't unless there's a revote or the two can agree on an equal distribution, neither of which appears likely.

Pelosi "happily is the gavel of the convention, but not the gavel of the (rules) committee," Manatt said. "It's all of our problem, but everyone's got their different jobs, and this time she is not in that spot."

Still, Pelosi's expertise and her position make her a major player in the outcome of both the Michigan-Florida dispute and the superdelegate situation.

"Her stake in this election goes beyond the selection of the nominee. There's a very important and compelling interest in not only keeping but strengthening the majority in the House, and who our candidate is for president will impact that substantially, and how we get there will affect it," said Democratic strategist Tad Devine, a delegate specialist unaffiliated with either campaign.

If voters in Michigan and Florida feel slighted, Democratic congressional candidates there could face a tougher road.

Similarly, many strategists fear a nomination fight resolved by party poobahs would look bad for Democrats, who pride themselves on being the party of ordinary people.

Pelosi has said she hopes superdelegates aren't the deciding factor in choosing a nominee this year. But that is exactly what happened when she was in charge of the rules panel in 1984, when unpledged delegates made the difference in handing the nomination to former Vice President Walter F. Mondale.

Mondale came into the convention without enough pledged delegates to secure the nomination, although he had many more than rival Sen. Gary Hart and was ahead in the popular vote. After the voting was all over, the support of superdelegates — who Mondale courted early as Clinton has during this race — gave him the edge.

Superdelegates are poised to play an even more defining role in this year's contest, with Clinton and Obama much closer in the delegate and popular vote count.

At some point analysts expect Pelosi to be a key player in mapping out a final result.

"We'll come to a point where the Speaker and others feel that they need to exert leadership privately and perhaps even publicly," Devine said. "She and (other leaders) are going to want to make sure that the endgame in the nominating process is a positive one."

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