Sorry, Sen. Clinton. Michigan and Florida can't save your campaign.
Interviews with those considering how to handle the two states' banished convention delegates found little interest in the former first lady's best-case scenario. Her position, part of a formidable comeback challenge, is that all the delegates be seated in accordance with their disputed primaries.
The Democratic Party's Rules and Bylaws Committee, a 30-member panel charged with interpreting and enforcing party rules, is scheduled to meet May 31 to consider how to handle Michigan and Florida's 366 delegates.
Last year, the panel imposed the harshest punishment it could render against the two states after they scheduled primaries in January, even though they were instructed not to vote until Feb. 5 or later. Michigan and Florida lost all their delegates to the national convention, and all the Democratic candidates agreed not to campaign in the two states, stripping them of all the influence they were trying to build by voting early.
But now there is agreement on all sides that at least some of the delegates should be restored in a gesture of party unity and respect to voters in two general election battlegrounds.
Clinton has been arguing for full reinstatement, which would boost her standing. She won both states, even though they didn't count toward the nomination and neither candidate campaigned in them. Obama even had his name pulled from Michigan's ballot.
The Associated Press interviewed a third of the panel members and several other Democrats involved in the negotiations and found widespread agreement that the states must be punished for stepping out of line. If not, many members say, other states will do the same thing in four years.
"We certainly want to be fair to both candidates, and we want to be sure that we are fair to the 48 states who abided by the rules," said Democratic National Committee Secretary Alice Germond, a panel member unaligned with either candidate. "We don't want absolute chaos for 2012.
"We want to reach out to Michigan and Florida and seat some group of delegates in some manner, at least most of us do. These are two critical states for the general (election) and the voters of those states who were not the people who caused this awful conundrum to occur deserve our attention and deserve to be a part of our process and deserve to be at the convention," she said.
Just as Democrats across the country have been divided over which candidate would make the better nominee, most of the panel members also bring personal preferences and political allegiances to the table.
Many are long-standing party officials with close ties to the Clintons. The former first lady has 13 members publicly supporting her, including campaign advisers Harold Ickes and Tina Flournoy who are working to build her delegate count. Eight are openly aligned with Obama. Nine others are officially undeclared.
"We have to have delegates, and they have to be delegations that reflect the opinions of those two states," said former DNC Chairman Don Fowler, a committee member supporting Clinton. "How we get there is very different because everyone sees these questions of who it helps and who it hurts. I don't think the formulation has been found that will get around the piece at this point." But he said a solution is probably possible among the diverse interests.
Because Obama is in the lead for the nomination, his camp heads into the meeting in a position of strength. It is possible the Illinois senator could clinch the nomination by the time the panel meets if he picks up the pace of superdelegate endorsements in the next two weeks.
But Obama has such a lead that he may be able to afford to be generous and give Clinton most of the delegates. That would help put the issue behind them and help him build good will in Michigan and Florida heading into the November election.
Still, some of Obama's supporters think the fairest solution is to disregard the primary votes and split the delegations evenly between the two candidates.
"It has to be a fair process for both candidates," said member Yvonne Gates, an Obama supporter from Nevada who said she wasn't sure what position she would support at the meeting. "My definition is a 50-50 split is something that is fair. It cannot be a situation where you give one candidate more votes than the other. In my opinion that wasn't an election when they didn't have a chance to get out and talk to the people of that community."
It's also possible that any vote that recognizes the Michigan and Florida results would legitimize their elections. Clinton has been arguing that she leads in the popular vote, but that's only when both states are included and it is very slim — fewer than 5,000 votes out of 34 million cast.
Her accounting also doesn't include some caucus states that favored Obama and where the popular vote wasn't tallied. The measure of winning the nomination is not the popular vote but the delegate count, and Obama leads 1,898 to 1,718, with 2,026 needed for the nomination. Still, Clinton is trying to use the popular vote argument to win over some delegates.
So far, Obama's campaign has not been giving direction publicly or privately to panel members. The Clinton campaign's official position has been full reinstatement, but her advisers acknowledge they are considering an idea before the panel to seat the delegates with half a vote each. Clinton campaign Chairman Terry McAuliffe said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" that they "certainly might" accept a compromise to seat half the delegates.
If their elections had been held according to party rules, Michigan and Florida would have allocated a total of 313 pledged delegates based on the outcome of the vote. Using the results of the January elections, Clinton would get 178 to Obama's 67, giving her a 111-vote advantage. As of Thursday, she was behind 180 delegates, so that would not catch her up even under that unlikely scenario.
The plans before the committee will be more generous to Obama. The Michigan Democratic Party has proposed giving 69 of its 128 delegates to Clinton and 59 to Obama, an advantage of 10 delegates for Clinton.
A proposal from Florida would halve its 185 delegates. From that, Clinton would get 52.5 and Obama 33.5, a 19-delegate advantage for Clinton.
"I think it's a reasonable solution to the problem that was created, and my hope is that we'll be able to get past this and move on," said Allan Katz, an Obama supporter who serves on the panel but won't be able to vote on any Florida solution because he is from the state.
The committee is not bound to select the proposals offered and has authority to reinstate any number of delegates and divide them in any way.
An open question is how to handle the other type of delegates each state lost — the superdelegates who are party leaders not bound by the outcome of the vote and are free to support whatever candidate they personally choose. Michigan has 28 superdelegates, and Florida 25. A total of eight have declared for Obama, seven for Clinton and the rest are undeclared.
Germond said she hopes the meeting will begin the process of unifying the party.
"Probably what we will come up with will not make everybody or anybody completely happy, which will mean that we did a good job," she said. "It is mighty unfortunate that at this point in our nominating process we are talking about people who did not abide by the process instead of talking about (beating Republican presidential candidate) John McCain."