Democrat leaders snuff out Hillary Clinton’s last hope of the nomination

Officials decide Michigan and Florida delegates will only have half votes at party convention as Barack Obama suddenly quits his controversial Chicago church

The squeeze on Hillary Clinton to relinquish the Democratic presidential nomination appeared to be intensifying last night, as party officials edged towards rejecting her demand that all votes cast in the disputed primary contests in Michigan and Florida be counted.

As they did so, there came news from the campaign of Senator Barack Obama that he has resigned from his church in Chicago in the continuing aftermath of inflammatory remarks by former pastor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. These were an issue his opponents were unlikely to have left unexploited.

But the main drama was taking place in a Washington hotel. Meeting amid high emotion under the scrutiny of demonstrators and TV cameras, members of the party’s rules and bylaws committee worked late into the evening on a compromise package that would only partially legitimise the results of the primaries in both states. At stake were 368 delegates from Michigan and Florida whose status has been in limbo because of an earlier decision to punish those states for holding their primaries too early. Before yesterday, the position was that none of those delegates would be seated at the party convention in August.

Mrs Clinton and Barack Obama did not campaign in either state, and in Michigan, Mr Obama was not even on the ballot. A compromise deal will mean a net gain of delegates for Mrs Clinton, but it will not help significantly to dent the delegate lead already held by Mr Obama.

This was Mrs Clinton’s last best hope of stopping the Obama train, but with no sign yesterday that the rules committee was inclined to go that far, the endgame is now upon her. All that remains are primaries in Puerto Rico today and Montana and South Dakota on Tuesday. It will then be for remaining uncommitted super-delegates to end the fight.

The dilemma faced by the rules committee and the party as a whole regarding Michigan and Florida was not small. While wanting to protect its right to enforce party rules, it also faces pressure not to be seen to be disenfranchising the voters of two states that will be vital in November.

For that reason, the Obama camp quickly made clear it was open to compromise, even if it meant narrowing its candidate’s delegate lead. Speaking on behalf of the Obama campaign with regard to Florida, Congressman Robert Wexler told the rules committee that “Florida certainly deserves to play a key

role in the nominating process”. He added, however, that Florida’s contest “was not a normal primary election” and a 100 per cent reinstatement of its delegates would be unjust.

Mr Wexler thus came out to endorse reseating all Florida delegates with a half vote for each, a move that would give Mrs Clinton a net gain of 19. “Senator Obama should be commended for his willingness to offer this concession,” he announced to a ruckus of cheers in the hall. The notion that Mr Obama was making a concession at all was hotly contested by Clinton lawyer Harold Ickes.

Michigan was a much trickier conundrum, because of the absence of Mr Obama on ballot papers. The committee was considering the legality of allocating delegates to Mr Obama proportional to the 40 per cent of Michigan primary voters who punched “uncommitted”. Mrs Clinton would get the remainder.

The Obama campaign hopes that once the last votes are cast on Tuesday night, uncommitted super-delegates will come in a rush to his column, allowing him to secure the nomination, possibly before the end of the week. In a show of confidence – some might say rash chutzpah – Mr Obama will late on Tuesday hold a “victory rally” at the same convention centre in St Paul, Minnesota, that will host the Republican Party’s nominating convention in early September.

The party leadership, including chairman Howard Dean and the speaker of the house, Nancy Pelosi, have made clear they want the nomination struggle resolved as soon as possible after Tuesday.

Withdrawing this week is one option for the former first lady. But she has others, including appealing whatever ruling on Florida and Michigan emerges this weekend, perhaps all the way to the Denver convention. She is perfectly entitled to do so, even if it would give party grandees the shivers because of the damage it would do to unity.

Mrs Clinton argues that she is ahead of Mr Obama in popular votes in the primary marathon, if not delegates. That may just be true if you do count all votes cast in Florida and Michigan.

With that, and with the wide victory she expects to score in Puerto Rico tonight, Mrs Clinton may make one last desperate pitch to super-delegates to side with her.

Meanwhile, Mr Obama’s choice of St Paul for his Tuesday event is raising eyebrows. “It’s not too subtle,” said University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs.

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