Hillary's last stand

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The Independent US

The epic struggle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination passes another milestone today, at a hotel near Washington's famous zoo.

With hundreds, perhaps more, vociferous and mostly female supporters of Mrs Clinton gathered outside, some 30 party apparatchiks will file into the Wardman Park hotel under the glare of the world's media. They are attempting to resolve the most hotly contested issue in the hopelessly tangled Democratic race: how many of the disputed delegates from Florida and Michigan should be seated at the party's nominating convention in Denver.

With more upsets, reversals and comebacks in a primary season than anyone can remember, the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination is believed to be in its final days. A decision could be taken today to seat at least some of the disputed delegates who Mrs Clinton says are being disenfranchised. But there was no guarantee last night she would accept such a compromise, despite mounting pressure from party elders for her to step down.

The New York Senator continues to insist she would be a stronger opponent to Republican John McCain in the November election, hinting she might yet take her battle all the way to the convention floor – conceivably via the courts.

The critical session of the party's rules committee comes as the official primary campaign enters its final four days. Tomorrow, Puerto Rico votes in a primary Ms Clinton is expected to win convincingly.

On Tuesday, the scantily populated Great Plains states of South Dakota and Montana hold primaries, where Mr Obama is likely to prevail

It is hoped that, by late August, a Democratic presidential candidate will be crowned unopposed. Yesterday, top party figures called for a rapid end to the battle, after five virtually non-stop months of primaries and caucuses. "We're going to urge folks to make a decision quickly – next week," Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader said. "We agree there won't be a fight at the convention."

Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker who has also been neutral in the contest, told the San Francisco Chronicle that if the nomination was not resolved by the end of June, she would step in to settle it.

All 300 tickets for today's committee meeting, an event that is usually ignored, were snapped up within minutes and the world's media will be on hand to record the comings and goings at the hotel when proceedings start at 9.30am.

The Democratic National Committee panel on rules is already stacked with Clinton supporters, a legacy of 15 years of the husband and wife's dominance of the party apparatus. The committee is expected to decide to increase the number of delegates a candidate must reach to secure the party's nomination and put the finishing line just out of Mr Obama's reach.

Mrs Clinton is demanding that all the disputed delegates be seated at the convention but few expect that to happen. It would still not be enough for her to close Mr Obama's delegate lead, which stands at 200 delegates more than her.

To clinch the nomination, a number of the 200 uncommitted superdelegates (party officials with voting rights) are expected to jump to his side at a signal from the campaign.

"After 3 June, you're going to see a wave of superdelegates beginning to go Obama's way," the Democratic consultant Chris Kofinis said yesterday.

"And when Senator Obama reaches the magic number, whenever that is, Senator Clinton is going to do what every Democrat will do – acknowledge he is the Democratic nominee and help unify the party to defeat John McCain in the November election."

Mr Obama said: "We've got three contests in succession and, at that point, all the information will be in. There will be no more questions unanswered." Once he has a mathematical majority, he told reporters, "then I'm the nominee."

Not so fast, say Mrs Clinton's backers, who will be out in force to make their point today. Upset at the way the media has declared the contest unwinnable for their candidate and determined to ensure that every vote is counted in all the Democratic primaries, they are making the case that Mrs Clinton may yet win a majority of the Democratic popular vote.

Florida and Michigan have a combined total of 368 delegates. The most widely canvassed compromise, and the one recommended by top party lawyers is for both states to seat half their delegates. If so, the winning post would shift from 2,026 to 2,118. Even if Ms Clinton is awarded a majority of the re-admitted delegates, it would not overturn Mr Obama's lead. But it might allow her to claim a majority in the raw national primary vote – a "victory" that conceivably could form the basis of a legal challenge.

A big win in Puerto Rico and a favourable decision over the "Florigan" delegates – as network television calls the Florida, Michigan dispute –might keep Mrs Clinton battling all the way to the convention. A doomsday scenario as far as the party is concerned.

The delegate debate

What started it all?

Democratic Party chiefs barred Florida and Michigan delegates from the August convention to punish them for holding their primaries earlier than allowed. Both candidates agreed not to campaign there, although Hillary Clinton left her name on the ballot in Michigan.

What's the meeting about?

The two states have challenged their exclusion. Together they account for about 10 per cent of the delegates and the party is wary of alienating voters in what are likely to be important battlegrounds in the November presidential election.

Who is on the committee?

Most of the 30-strong panel are long-time party activists. They include Harold Ickes, a key Clinton aide, and Donna Brazile, who ran Al Gore's campaign in 2000.

What's likely to happen?

The party's legal team says the panel has the authority to reinstate half of the states' delegate power, either by including half the delegations or giving the full delegation half a vote. The Clinton campaign challenges that and is pressing for the delegate count to reflect the popular vote from the January primaries, which she won.