Clinton's Choice: Scorch The Earth Or Prepare To Fold

Clinton campaign operatives face a crucial decision Saturday morning.

Their first alternative is to go into the Rules and Bylaws Committee (RBC) meeting with a scorched earth strategy: refuse compromise and keep the dispute over the Florida and Michigan delegations alive all the way to the August convention.

The second choice would be to go for a partial victory that would grant some legitimacy to the Florida and Michigan primaries. That, in turn, would strengthen Hillary Clinton's claim that she has won the popular vote by adding the 1,185,359 votes that she won in Florida and Michigan to her total, and the 569,041 votes Barack Obama won in the two states to his total - with a net Clinton pickup of 616,318 votes.

The Obama forces face a similarly tough set of choices: whether to agree to a compromise tilted in Clinton's favor in order to resolve the issue and prevent a convention floor fight, or go to the mat in an attempt to gain as many possible delegates out of the deal as possible.

On the surface, the Clinton forces have a weak hand, their own representatives on the 30-member RBC split between the goal of winning the nomination and refusing to push the rules to the breaking point.

That does not, however, guarantee that Clinton will emerge the loser. Instead, the RBC session could well reach an impasse, with no majority emerging for any solution to the issues of seating the disputed Florida and Michigan delegations.

That outcome would have the potential benefit to Clinton of having an issue to raise at the Denver convention in August. If, as some Clinton backers continue to hope, a new controversy emerges to damage Obama's bid along the lines of Jeremiah Wright's videotaped sermons, having a procedural vote on hand can prove to be a vehicle to force more debate and to raise more doubts.

Today, less than 24 hours from the start of the RBC session, some Clinton loyalists on the Rules Committee are publicly questioning whether they would support Clinton's demand for seating all the Florida and Michigan delegates with full voting rights.

Donald Fowler, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and the South Carolina Democratic Party, said that in the case of the 210-member Florida delegation elected on January 29, "I'm going to have to think long and hard before I support the position that we won't settle for anything less than 100 percent. There are institutional concerns that have to be respected."

Instead, Fowler indicated he is inclined to back seating the Florida delegates with the proviso that they get only half a vote each. The case of Michigan, where Obama did not appear on the January 15 primary ballot, is a far more difficult state to find an acceptable solution for, Fowler noted.

Another key pro-Clinton member of the RBC, Elaine Kaymark, holds similar concerns to Fowler but, in a brief phone interview as her plane was about to take off from Boston to Washington, she would only say "I don't know yet," in response to questions about how she intends to vote.

The Democratic Party in 2007 voted to strip Michigan and Florida of all their convention delegates if they went ahead with plans to hold January primaries in violation of party rules prohibiting contests before February 5, with exceptions for Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. Florida and Michigan went ahead anyway, and Clinton won the popular vote in both states.

Since then, everyone, including Clinton and Obama, have agreed that both populous and highly important battleground states should have some representation at the convention in order to prevent alienating voters in Michigan and Florida, potentially fatally damaging the chances of the Democratic nominee in November.

While the Clinton forces are divided, that does not mean that the Obama backers will emerge winners.

Obama's operatives have pointedly avoided explicit descriptions of their goals at the RBC session - "We're of course going to and have been working towards a fair and equitable resolution to the seating of the delegations," said spokesman Bill Burton.

In a conference call earlier this week, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said "we've been clear for some time now that we're open to some compromise that's fair," adding: "the attention of both the voters and the parties is quickly turning toward the general election so we're hoping that, you know, there can be some reasonable resolution on Saturday."

Other sources, however, say that the Obama campaign would accept the Florida half-vote solution, which would give Clinton a net gain of roughly 19 delegates -- no where near enough to catch up to Obama.

The more difficult issue for Obama and Clinton is the 156-member Michigan delegation. Since Obama did not appear on the ballot at all, there are no delegates pledged to him. Hillary won 55 percent, while "uncommitted" took 40 percent, and the rest went to minor candidates.

A number of Obama's supporters contend that at least 40 percent of the Michigan delegates should be assigned to him. The proposal they are actually preparing to press would be to declare the Michigan contest to be an unfair test, and seat all the delegates, splitting them right down the middle, 50-50, between Clinton and Obama.

In the case of Michigan, however, the Clinton forces appear to be unanimous in their view that she should get at least 55 percent of the state's delegate votes. They are, in addition, deeply skeptical of, if not explicitly opposed to, the assignment of any Michigan delegate votes to Obama.

Clinton supporters Harold Ickes, her chief delegate hunter, and Fowler - both masters of party rules - contend that delegates chosen by voters casting ballots for "uncommitted" cannot be assigned to a specific candidate by the Rules Committee.

They argue that to do so would be to impute an unknowable motivation on the part of the voter, a theoretically dangerous step for any political body to take.

"Giving us no delegates in Michigan," Plouffe countered, would not be "terribly reasonable."