WASHINGTON - The Democratic Party yesterday reinstated the delegates from disputed presidential primaries in Michigan and Florida but with only half-votes, a compromise that brought Barack Obama closer to the presidential nomination but left the party facing the prospect of further internal conflict.
The Obama campaign applauded the party's Rules and Bylaws Committee's handling of the emotion-charged disputes in an often-raucous televised meeting in a Washington hotel. But the committee's decision on the Michigan primary, which Clinton won in January by a wide margin after other contenders took their names off the ballot, left Clinton's supporters fuming and threatening to take the fight to the party's nominating convention in Denver in August.
The committee's rulings gave Clinton a net increase of 24 delegates from the two states, but that number fell far short of the delegate haul she was hoping for just as the party's primary season comes to a close.
When the Michigan outcome was announced, Clinton's supporters sitting in the packed gallery booed and jeered the committee. They stood and cheered when Harold Ickes, an influential committee member and one of Clinton's top advisers, defiantly announced to the panel that Clinton "reserves her right to appeal" the matter at the convention, hinting at a bare-knuckles fight the party had sought to avoid.
"Behind all the rhetoric during the meeting about democracy and on and on and on, I am stunned that we have the gall and the chutzpah to substitute our judgment for 600,000" Michigan voters, Ickes said. "I submit that hijacking [Clinton delegates] is not a good way to start down the path of party unity."
Former Michigan representative David Bonior, who argued on behalf of Obama at the meeting, said the result was "fair" and predicted "we're very close to the end" of the long primary campaign. He would not say whether he expected Clinton's campaign to carry the potentially damaging delegate fight to Denver.
"That's a decision they'll have to make," he said.
The committee's marathon deliberations over how to handle the 368 delegates from the two states took place amid a flurry of final primaries: Puerto Rico today and then Montana and South Dakota on Tuesday will bring the five-month primary season to an end with Obama in sight of winning enough delegates to claim the nomination.
By reinstating the Florida and Michigan delegations, the committee effectively added to the total number of delegates Obama needs to clinch the nomination: He now has 2,052 delegates, 66 short of the 2,118 he now needs to win. But Clinton now has 1,877.5 delegates, 241 short of what she needs.
Unlike Michigan, Florida delegates were awarded based strictly on the outcome of the primary, since Clinton and Obama were both on the ballot, but the delegates' votes were cut in half because the state moved its primary forward in violation of the national party's rules, which sought to keep the primary schedule orderly.
"We feel good about the Florida decision, but we're obviously disappointed with the Michigan decision," said Howard Wolfson, Clinton's top spokesman. He would not say if Clinton will challenge the decision at the party's convention, adding that "we are keeping our options open."
Given the acrimony in Washington, the party could face a tougher struggle in November against presumptive Republican nominee John McCain.
While Clinton supporters protested outside the Washington hotel where the meeting took place, advocates for the presidential candidates agreed in the committee that the party should reinstate the Michigan delegation, which like Florida's was voided because the state's primary jumped the gun on the party's national schedule.
At issue was how to divide the delegates: Clinton believed she should get the lion's share because she won the election by a wide margin, but Obama's advocates argued that the delegates should be divided evenly between them because he wasn't even on the ballot.
Mark Brewer, chairman of Michigan's Democratic Party, told the panel the best solution was a compromise, based on an assessment of exit polling and other data. Brewer said Obama was entitled to 59 pledged delegates to Clinton's 69, "a far fairer reflection of the Democratic preferences in Michigan."
Clinton's starting proposal - that she deserved 73 pledged delegates with 55 delegates remaining uncommitted - "is not a fair reflection of Michigan Democratic voter preferences," Brewer said.
The conflicts grew out of the Democratic National Committee's decision to void the Florida and Michigan delegations as punishment for holding primaries in January, ahead of schedule. When the sanctions were announced, the candidates pledged not to campaign in the two states, but Clinton kept her name on the ballot in Michigan.
As she fell behind Obama, Clinton argued more emphatically that her wins in those states should count. Campaigning last week in Florida, she compared her fight to the voting rights struggles of black people and women and warned that Democrats were in danger of repeating the 2000 Florida presidential vote debacle.
The dispute heated up last week when the party's lawyers issued a memo saying that a legal team's review indicates that the committee has no choice but to penalize both states for jumping the gun - and that sanctions should at least cut each state's convention delegations by half. Clinton's campaign then issued a legal interpretation of its own, contending the rules committee has a wide range of options to solve the matter.
The issue of the disputed Michigan and Florida primaries became a focal point of anger for Clinton supporters, and busloads of them arrived in Washington to protest - many of them Clinton campaign volunteers. Holding placards and shouting slogans like, "Count every vote!" they demanded that the Democratic National Committee honor all the primary votes and pledged delegates from Florida and Michigan.
Arlene Faracchio, 73, and Myrtice Tomkins, 62, both decked out in T-shirts emblazoned with "Florida Demands Representation," took an overnight bus ride from Jacksonville to voice their displeasure.
"They might as well just chop Florida off the map," huffed Tomkins, who lives in Madison County in Florida. "They don't claim us anyway. They are destroying the Democratic Party."
Many said the controversy reminded them of the controversial 2000 presidential election, when the US Supreme Court halted a recount in four Florida counties and the presidency went to George W. Bush.
"Aside from wanting my candidate to win, voices need to be heard," said Chantal, 31, who came with a group of Clinton volunteers from Boston and asked that her last name not be used because she is a government employee. "We complained and moaned and groaned in 2,000 that people were disenfranchised, and we are willing do the same thing."