WASHINGTON - Democratic Party leaders decided yesterday to seat the delegates from Michigan and Florida at half strength, untangling a dispute about the states' unauthorized primaries with a compromise that preserves Sen. Barack Obama's lead over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The deal, reached behind closed doors after five hours of public testimony and debate, would give Clinton a net gain of 24 delegate votes from the two states, falling far short of her goal of an outcome reflecting her big wins in the disputed primaries.

Clinton supporters in a hotel ballroom here greeted the decision by the party's Rules and Bylaws Committee with jeers, hissing and chants of outrage, potentially illustrating the challenges of unifying the party. Harold Ickes, a Clinton strategist and member of the committee, said Clinton would "reserve the right" to appeal the decision to the party's credentials committee.

"I am stunned that we have the gall and chutzpah to substitute our judgment for 600,000 voters," Ickes said of the decision on Michigan, which grants four fewer delegates than the Clinton campaign would have received under her proposal. "I submit to you that hijacking four delegates . . . notwithstanding the flawed election, is not a good way to start down the path to party unity."

Indeed, some partisans of both candidates scuffled in the back of the room as dozens chanted, "Denver, Denver, Denver!" - a threat to take the dispute to the national convention. "McCain in '08!" one woman shouted, adding, "No-bama! No-bama!"

The deal increased the number of delegates needed to clinch the nomination to 2,118, and Obama was 66 votes short of that number heading into the final primaries, according to the Associated Press.

Democratic voters go to the polls today in Puerto Rico, where Clinton is heavily favored, and on Tuesday in South Dakota and Montana, where Obama has been leading in public-opinion surveys.

In a sign of Obama's growing confidence that he will wrap up the nomination this week, his campaign scheduled a Tuesday night rally in St. Paul, Minn., at the Xcel Energy Center, where the Republicans will hold their convention in early September.

Even if the results of the remaining primaries conform to expectations, Obama will need the votes of superdelegates - elected officials and Democratic leaders who get automatic seats at the convention and are not bound by primary results - to clinch.

While the immediate question before the 30-member Rules and Bylaws Committee was whether to restore delegates it had stripped from Florida and Michigan as punishment for holding their primaries too early, concerns about party unity permeated the proceedings.

"The healing will begin today," party chairman Howard Dean said in opening remarks. "Your actions will put the party on the road to unity."

The circumstances involving the two disputed states were different, although neither Clinton nor Obama had campaigned in either one. In Michigan, where Obama had taken his name off the Jan. 15 primary ballot, Clinton won 54 percent of the vote to 40 percent for "uncommitted." In Florida, state law required all the candidates' names to remain on the Jan. 29 ballot, and Clinton won 50 percent to 33 percent for Obama. About 1.7 million Democrats voted in Florida, about 600,000 in Michigan.

Debate was sometimes heated yesterday over what the primary results should mean, though all sides professed they wanted to placate two states that will be important to Democratic chances of retaking the White House.

A proposal to apportion the Florida delegates by the primary results, but with half-votes each, was accepted on a 27-0 vote. Insiders said agreement was harder to reach for Michigan because Obama was not on the ballot, and it was difficult to discern what those voting "uncommitted" intended. In addition, about 30,000 write-in votes could not be counted under Michigan law.

The committee, voting 19-8, adopted the Michigan Democratic Party's compromise proposal that its 128 pledged delegates be split 69 for Clinton and 59 for Obama, each with half a vote.

Clinton wanted the Michigan delegates allocated according to the primary results: 73 delegates for her, 55 for "uncommitted" - a category the party recognizes - and none for Obama.

But Mark Brewer, the state Democratic chairman, said that would not have been a fair reflection of voter preference at the time. He cited exit polls to argue that "uncommitted" votes were really for Obama and John Edwards, who has since endorsed Obama. The Michigan party had instructed supporters of the candidates to vote that way, and the Obama campaign had an active effort to push an "uncommitted" vote.

Elaine Kamarck, a committee member from Massachusetts who supports Clinton, said she had no doubt that was true, but she said she was concerned about "willy-nilly, arbitrary assignment" of delegates based on factors other than voting returns. "This way lies chaos," she said.

Don Fowler, a committee member from South Carolina and another Clinton supporter, said that if exit polls counted, John Kerry would be president today. He said the Michigan proposal was "out of Alice in Wonderland."

Brewer admitted that the party's proposal was an estimate, but he said: "We had to do something. I wish there were more. I wish it was better, but it's all we have."

Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan said Michigan had scheduled its primary early to protest the committee's decision to let New Hampshire move its first-in-the-nation primary even earlier than allowed by the party's calendar.

"We were in the position of taking on that perpetual privilege" that New Hampshire has in going first every presidential election year, he said.

Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, called the committee's decisions yesterday "a fair solution."

What's Next

Puerto Rico holds its Democratic primary today, with 55 pledged delegates at stake. Polls close at 3 p.m.

The final primaries of the nominating season are Tuesday, in South Dakota and Montana. Last polls close at 9 p.m. in South Dakota, which has 15 pledged delegates at stake, and 10 p.m. in Montana, where 16 pledged delegates will be allocated.

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Contact staff writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2178 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com.