A top Democrat says that party leaders intend to push for a quick end to the grueling presidential nomination battle, as supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton planned a rally in Washington in a last-minute effort to save her faltering candidacy.
Barack Obama is now within striking distance of the nomination after a combative months-long campaign that some top Democrats have openly worried could harm the party's chances at the White House. Republican John McCain effectively wrapped up the Republican nomination in March.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that he, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and party chairman Howard Dean will urge uncommitted superdelegates — the party leaders and other who may choose whomever they like — to choose sides quickly so that there is not a fight at the August convention.
"By this time next week, it will all be over, give or take a day," Reid said Thursday.
Obama is within 44 delegates of clinching the nomination, according to the NBC News tally, and leads Clinton by nearly 200 delegates. He has 1,982, to her 1,784, out of the 2,026 necessary for the nomination.
Democratic officials said Pelosi already has begun contacting uncommitted House members urging them to weigh in soon after the primary season ends.
Obama stands to gain a minimum of roughly 20 delegates in remaining primaries in Puerto Rico, Montana and South Dakota under party rules that distribute them in proportion to the popular vote — even if he loses all three.
Clinton supporters head to D.C.
Clinton is now hoping that leaders at a meeting of the party's rules committee on Saturday will decide to seat the delegations from Michigan and Florida, whose primaries were voided when they were moved into January in violation of party rules.
Her supporters are mobilizing for protests there and Clinton has threatened to campaign to the convention if she is not satisfied with the results.
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 United States. Barack Obama's campaign discouraged a counterprotest, although his supporters vied with Clinton backers for the limited public seats inside the meeting.
The party must handle the situation delicately. It wants to enforce discipline and not shift the campaign's momentum, but must avoid alienating Clinton's supporters and lose a chance at capturing two swing states that have the potential to go Republican.
Obama's campaign is willing to give Clinton the major share of delegates from Florida and Michigan, but is stopping short of her demand to fully recognize the two renegade states. Clinton won both, but both Obama and Clinton agreed not to campaign for the Florida primary and Obama was not even on the ballot in Michigan.
Nationally, Obama has developed a clear lead over Clinton — 54 percent to 41 percent, a Pew Research Center poll conducted May 21-25 shows. That is a change from April, when the same poll found he and Clinton were running about even.
When matched against McCain, Obama is now running about even among all voters; he has had a narrow advantage over McCain most of the year.
Obama and McCain have increasingly targeted each other as a November general election showdown between the two men seems inevitable. Rallying to counter McCain's criticism that he lacks foreign policy experience, Obama said he is considering a trip to Iraq but dismissed as a "political stunt" an invitation by the Republican candidate to make the visit together.
McCain, a decorated Navy pilot and former Vietnam prisoner of war, has built much of his candidacy on his foreign policy and national security experience. While he supports continued U.S. military involvement in Iraq, Obama has called for a quick withdrawal of the troops. He made his only trip to Iraq in January 2006 as part of a congressional delegation.
He has also repeatedly criticized the first-term senator for saying he would meet with leaders the U.S. considers rogue.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson on Thursday defended Obama's willingness to talk with the leaders of Cuba and Venezuela, saying such openness would encourage democratic reforms.
Richardson also endorsed Obama's willingness to ease the decades-old U.S. embargo on Cuba, where Raul Castro has made several overtures to the U.S. since becoming president.
"His readiness to have a dialogue with Cuba and Venezuela, I just think this could mean a new era for the U.S.-Latin America relationship," Richardson said in an Associated Press interview.