Normally a cure for insomnia, the Democratic Party rules committee will seize the political spotlight tomorrow with a special session that represents the last chance for Hillary Rodham Clinton to make a real dent in Barack Obama's delegate lead.
Meeting in a Washington hotel, the Rules and Bylaws Committee is scheduled to determine what to do with the delegates from Michigan and Florida, which broke party rules by holding their primaries before Feb. 5.
As punishment, the committee declared that the 368 delegates from the two states would not be seated at the August convention in Denver. Michigan held its primary Jan. 15 and Florida conducted its primary Jan. 29, in violation of rules to protect the early-voting status of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
Now Democratic officials in Michigan and Florida - and Clinton, who was trailing Obama late yesterday by 199 delegates, according to an Associated Press count - want the state delegations seated at full strength. Drama surrounding tomorrow's hearing has increased this week, with protesters planning to descend en masse, and admittance to the hotel ballroom where it will be held is the hottest ticket in Washington.
The conflict comes to a head as the marathon Democratic campaign draws to a close, and with Obama poised to clinch the nomination shortly after Tuesday's final primaries in Montana and South Dakota.
"It may not change the math of this campaign - all the Clinton people understand she has an overwhelming mountain to climb - but it is a defining moment," said Steve Grossman, a superdelegate from Massachusetts and former national Democratic chairman who supports Clinton. Obama, by being magnanimous, has a chance to "accelerate the unity process," Grossman said.
Neither Clinton nor Obama campaigned in Michigan or Florida, and Obama's name was not on the Michigan ballot. Clinton won the states by wide margins. Clinton's side wants the delegates from the two states allocated in accordance with the results of the disputed primaries, even though Obama would be awarded zero Michigan delegates.
"We are urging 100 percent of the delegations be seated and that each delegate have a full vote," Clinton strategist Harold Ickes, who also is a member of the rules committee, told reporters Wednesday in a conference call. The intent, he said, is to "reflect the will" of 2.3 million voters in the two states.
Obama's campaign says it supports a compromise that would give the lion's share of the delegates to Clinton, while punishing the states in some way for breaking the rules.
Any compromise would benefit Clinton and give her "a not insignificant number of delegates," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said.
The Clinton position is "not terribly reasonable," he said. "I don't think you can at the eleventh hour argue to change the rules you pledged to live by in a way that unfairly advantages you."
An analysis of the issue by party lawyers suggested that only half of the delegate strength of each state could be legally recognized because party rules stipulate that is the proper sanction. In a memo, the lawyers said the rules allow the committee to either seat half the states' delegates or to seat all of them but give each delegate only half a vote.
Busloads of Clinton supporters plan to converge on the meeting hotel for a "Count Every Vote" rally, and Clinton backers have bombarded committee members with phone calls and gifts of Florida oranges.
Plouffe said the Obama campaign was asking its supporters not to go to Washington. "We don't think it's a helpful dynamic to create chaos," he said.
The committee is scheduled to hear testimony from officials from the two states and the campaigns in the morning, and to deliberate and reach a decision in the afternoon.
The ruling can be appealed to the party's Credentials Committee, which ultimately could place the issue before the convention.
"That's a bridge to cross when we come to that particular stream," Ickes said, when asked whether the Clinton forces would appeal an unfavorable ruling.
As Clinton has acknowledged, the two cases present quite different issues for the committee to consider with Florida arguably having the stronger argument that the results of its voting should be recognized.
One difference between the two states is how their too-early primaries came into existence.
In Florida, the prime thrust for the move to a January primary came not from Democrats but from the state's Republican governor, Charlie Crist, and the GOP-controlled state legislature.
To be sure, most legislative Democrats ultimately voted for the move-up, saying they liked other elements of the legislation in which it was contained. But they could not have stopped it anyway.
In Michigan, however, it was the Democrats themselves, most notably Sen. Carl Levin and Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who were responsible for changing the schedule, breaking the rules and risking the consequences.
Another difference of note is the ballots.
In Florida, both Clinton and Obama (along with John Edwards) were on the ballot. All of them refrained from campaigning there - except for some national cable ads by Obama that ran in the state and an election-eve fund-raising visit by Clinton.
In Michigan, candidates had the option of removing their names from the ballot, and Obama and Edwards did so, making it less of a full-fledged fight. Instead, voters could choose "uncommitted."
While some Obama supporters used that option, it is impossible to know what uncommitted voters intended, presenting a problem for the rules committee as it considers whether to seat a bloc of uncommitted delegates or award them to Obama.
In arguing that both primaries should be recognized as valid, Clinton's aides have frequently pointed to what they call the "enormous turnout" in the two states as evidence that people believed the primaries were real events and not just for show.
Actually, turnout was good but short of enormous.
In January, Democratic primaries throughout the country generally were attracting far more participants than Republican primaries, except in the most solidly Republican states. But that did not happen in Florida or Michigan, both of which are considered swing states.
In Michigan, with both nominations in play and all Michigan voters eligible to vote in either primary, the Republican turnout was 869,000; Democratic turnout was 594,000.
In Florida, which had a closed primary, the GOP vote was 1,949,000, the Democratic vote 1,750,000. And many Democrats were drawn to the polls by a high-profile property-tax referendum.
National Committee's 30-member Rules and Bylaws Committee will meet in Washington tomorrow starting at 9:30 a.m.
is planning to broadcast the event.
The rules committee
is cochaired by Alexis Herman, labor secretary under President Bill Clinton, and James Roosevelt Jr., an HMO executive and grandson of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Others on the panel
include Harold Ickes,
a top campaign strategist for Sen.
Hillary Rodham Clinton; Donna Brazile, a CNN commentator and 2000 presidential campaign manager for former
Vice President Al Gore; and Donald Fowler, former Democratic national chairman.
Inquirer senior writer Larry Eichel will blog from the Democrats' meeting, starting at
9:30 a.m. tomorrow on philly.com's home page.