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Dean: Dems cannot go into convention divided

Comparing his position to that of a referee in an NCAA final game, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean told NBC's Tim Russert that he's focusing on the established rules rather than bowing to the emotional arguments of the candidates and their surrogates.  

On Sunday's “Meet the Press,” Dean laid out a measured strategy for resolving the increasingly tense, costly and divisive primary battle between Sens. Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama. “My plan as DNC chairman is to have this resolved before it goes to convention … by the end of June,” he told Russert. “If you go into the convention divided, it’s pretty likely you’ll come out of the convention divided.”

“I would like everybody to say who they're for by the end of June,” he added.

Reacting to recent statements made by Gov. Ed Rendell, a Clinton supporter, about the popular vote being a “fairer indicia” than the current system, Dean said his job was to enforce the rules. “Governor Rendell may not like the rules, but the rules are what we started with. Most of them have been in place for the last 25 years. That’s what we’ve got to go by.”

Dean's exegesis of the DNC rulebook included careful wording around the superdelegate debate that has plagued and polarized his party since Super Tuesday failed to designate a nominee.  “As I see it, the candidate with the most delegates will get the nomination,” he explained.

But when pressed by Russert on whether or not superdelegates could change the outcome of the nomination process, Dean conceded that this would be a possibility and that it would be within the guidelines of the party.

“The superdelegates do not have to abide by the will of the people — is that correct?”  Russert asked. 

“Yes,” Dean replied, quickly adding, “But I’ve been a part of the process since 1980, and I’ve never seen that happen.” 

Dean also attempted to clarify who superdelegates are and how they vote. He admonished Russert for speaking in terms of superdelegates “overruling” the delegates and compared the process instead to a representative democracy. “Superdelegates are elected officials. [Only] a tiny minority isn't elected, they’re appointed. They’re elected by the same people who go to the conventions and vote in the primaries. They’re governors, senators, DNC members...  There are 21-year-olds there, 50 percent are women and so on. So this should not be looked at as some bunch of cigar-smoking folks in the back room slapping each other on the back and electing the next president. ”

Dean conceded that there is no set criteria laid out for the superdelegates on how they should vote. “They have to vote with their conscience,” he said. “My personal view is that they should vote for the person who can best beat John McCain.” 

Throughout his appearance, Dean emphasized the losing candidate's responsibility in uniting the party. “The most important person is the person who doesn’t win the nomination,” Dean said. “The person who doesn’t win will lose with 49 percent of the vote.  It’s essential that they think they were treated fairly... When I lost to John Kerry, I had to go out and convince my supporters that they needed to support Sen. Kerry. That took me about three months. I endorsed him, campaigned for him, I went to college campuses.  And that’s what the person who doesn’t win this is going to have to do in order to keep the party together.”

On the still-unresolved topic of counting delegates from Michigan and Florida, states that defied DNC plans and moved their primaries ahead of their scheduled dates, Dean said that he's determined to see those delegates seated in some way. Confirming that the Rules Committee would be meeting on May 31to address the issue, Dean added that the final decision was in their hands, not his. “No one will be satisfied because no one will get everything they want.  Michigan and Florida broke the rules, [we] have to deal with that.”

Russert pointed out that the clock is ticking on preparing a candidate and that McCain is tied or beating both Clinton and Obama in national polls.

Dean replied, “That's because Senator McCain's not being challenged by anybody yet. We intend to do that.” 

In the roundtable discussion that followed, almost all the panelists agreed that Dean had oversimplified the problem. David Broder from the Washington Post said, “Dean says that this will wrap up, but I don’t see that happening … it will be very hard to convince Senator Clinton to drop out of the race.” 

Columnist John Dickerson from Slate added that the Democratic party does not believe that the race is as close as Dean portrays it. “If Barack Obama wins the popular and elected delegate votes and doesn’t get the nomination, there will be a huge blow up.” 

But it was NBC’s Andrea Mitchell who spelled out the Democrats’ mounting quandary: “Hillary Clinton has laid out the road map for the Republicans,” she said of Clinton's fight with Obama. “She’s written the playbook for John McCain.”