WASHINGTON - Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's prospects of persuading Democratic officials to override party rules and recognize all delegates selected in the Florida and Michigan primaries suffered a setback yesterday after lawyers for the party ruled that no more than half of those delegations could be legally recognized.
Democratic National Committee lawyers wrote in a memo that the two states must forfeit at least half their delegates as punishment for holding primaries earlier than DNC rules allowed.
Clinton won both primaries, though Democratic candidates had agreed not to campaign in either state, and Sen. Barack Obama had removed his name from Michigan's ballot.
The DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee is scheduled to meet Saturday to make a final determination on Florida and Michigan, which would have collectively awarded 368 convention delegates. But in the memo, party lawyers determined that full restoration, as sought by Clinton, would violate DNC rules, though it did note a loophole that would allow her to carry the challenge to the first day of the Democratic National Convention in late August.
Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said the Illinois senator was prepared to forfeit a portion of his delegate lead, as part of a compromise to resolve the flap.
"We don't think it's fair to seat them fully," Plouffe said of the two delegations. But he added, "We're willing to give some delegates here" to put the matter to rest.
If the current delegate tally were to hold, Plouffe said, Obama could pull within about 10 delegates of the 2,026 needed for the nomination, assuming he wins the South Dakota and Montana primaries as expected Tuesday.
Saturday's meeting is likely to increase the threshold, possibly by several dozen delegates, but campaign officials said they were confident that uncommitted superdelegates would quickly move to endorse Obama, pushing him over the finish line as early as Wednesday morning.
Plouffe said the campaign was not stockpiling superdelegates to roll out en masse.
"We announce superdelegates as they commit to us," he said. But he said the middle of next week would be "a natural time" for those who have not picked sides to finally break.
Obama is already acting like a general-election candidate. He spent the last three days in New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado, expected to be swing states in November.
Clinton visited South Dakota yesterday. Obama aired a new TV ad in Puerto Rico, which votes Sunday, and will depart tomorrow on a final three-day swing through Montana and South Dakota. Clinton is expected to spend the weekend in Puerto Rico, where she is favored.
But her best hope for late gains is at the DNC meeting Saturday. Clinton supporters are organizing a "Count Every Vote" rally outside the meeting site in Washington, and have bombarded committee members with phone calls and Florida oranges to press their case.
Obama's campaign sent a mass e-mail to supporters yesterday, urging them not to descend on the event. Plouffe said he wanted to avoid an "unhelpful scene at the close of the nomination fight."
DNC lawyers found that the Rules and Bylaws Committee acted within its rights by voiding the Florida and Michigan results, after Michigan moved its primary to Jan. 15 and Florida moved its to Jan. 29 in violation of party rules.
Clinton senior adviser Harold Ickes would not rule out a legal challenge if the committee does not rule in the New York senator's favor. "That's a bridge to cross when we come to that particular stream," he said on a conference call with reporters.
Clinton also appealed directly to superdelegates, writing in a letter to undeclared ones: "When the primaries are finished, I expect to lead in the popular vote and in delegates earned by primaries. Ultimately the point of our primary process is to pick our strongest nominee."
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