The Democratic presidential race is heading into a fractious end game as supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton mobilize for a protest Saturday to demand that the party count two outlawed primaries that favored her.
Protesters planned to rally outside the Washington hotel where the party's rules committee will tackle the vexing question of how to punish Michigan and Florida without completely disenfranchising Democratic primary voters from those states.
At least several busloads of Clinton supporters were anticipated from Florida and perhaps scores of people from Michigan as well as demonstrators from various parts of the country. Barack Obama's campaign discouraged a counterprotest, although his supporters vied with Clinton backers for the limited public seats inside the meeting.
Among the scheduled speakers at the rally are Clinton fundraiser Elizabeth Bagley; two members of Congress who back the New York senator, Reps. Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio and Corrine Brown of Florida; and Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women. Her group's political action committee has endorsed Clinton.
Party officials voted before the two January primaries, without much controversy outside those states, to strip Michigan and Florida of their convention delegates as a penalty for holding their primaries earlier than Democratic rules allowed. All the Democratic candidates agreed to the rules and avoided campaigning in either state. Obama removed his name from the Michigan ballot.
Clinton won a majority of votes cast in both the renegade contests.
Obama is close to clinching the Democratic nomination no matter what happens Saturday. As his delegate lead has widened, the Illinois senator has become more open to a compromise that would count some delegates from the two states even if that puts Clinton closer behind him.
Still, party unity is proving elusive, despite the wrap-up of the primary season Tuesday when Montana and South Dakota hold the final contests, after Puerto Ricans vote Sunday.
The pressure is intense on the rules committee to find a solution. Without one, the party's internal fight could drag on through the summer and into a divided convention in Denver, a nightmare for Democrats.
Campaigns avoiding the fray
The Clinton campaign said it was not organizing the rally.
"I am aware that there are lots of people very passionate about this topic who are coming," Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said.
Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said his side was hoping to avoid a "scene."
"Obviously, with the click of a mouse it would be pretty easy for us in the mid-Atlantic to get thousands of people there, but we don't think it's a helpful dynamic to create chaos and in the interest of party unity, we're encouraging our supporters not to protest," he said.
Obama supporter David Wilhelm, a former party chairman, echoed that sentiment. "We're not going to have Obama folks protesting. We're not going to turn this thing into a circus."
Party officials said the roughly 500 public seats for the meeting were spoken for within minutes. The party warned those coming that they won't get to ask questions and that "to maintain the decorum of the meeting, banners, posters, signs, handouts, and noisemakers of any kind are strictly prohibited."
Mary Boergers, a former Maryland state senator and volunteer county coordinator for Clinton in suburban Washington, sent an e-mail to her contacts, encouraging them to get seats inside so Obama's supporters don't fill them all. She also asked them to come to the rally "wearing red, white and blue but no Hillary material."
A local pro-Obama blog said supporters of the Illinois senator snagged 100 of 125 available tickets for people from the Washington area.
Susie Buell, one of Clinton's top fundraisers, formed a political action committee encouraging women to support full seating of the delegates. The PAC has taken out newspaper ads promoting the rally.
On Thursday, she objected to Plouffe's talk of chaos. "So much is at stake in this election and we will not be accused of creating chaos when we are standing up for the democratic principle that every vote counts," she said.
In fact, Plouffe did not accuse Clinton supporters of plotting chaos. He said that could be the result if Obama supporters were to respond by sending thousands to the rally.
Clinton exhorted supporters earlier this month to press the Democratic National Committee to seat all Michigan and Florida delegates. A torrent of angry e-mails has been sent to rules committee members since.
Typical of their tone: "You cannot willfully silence the voices of millions and then expect those voices to support you in the general election." "The DNC will never get another nickel from me." "More than ever, you ... are showing your disrespect and hatred for women by your actions."