WASHINGTON--Hillary Clinton is talking as if the battle over seating disputed delegations from Florida and Michigan at the Democratic National Convention is the greatest crisis for democracy since the 2000 Florida recount.
Her rhetoric flies in the face of intensive efforts by members of the party's rules committee to settle the delegate battle with a compromise that would likely guarantee the nomination for Barack Obama. Ending the struggle quickly depends on whether the rules committee's peacemakers succeed in their work.
Clinton's chances of winning are slim, partly because some of her own supporters believe the contest is over. They see the clash over Michigan and Florida as futile for Clinton and destructive to the party.
As a result, officials close to the controversy say that even if the 13 members of the rules committee who support Clinton stick with her, they would likely be outvoted by the eight members loyal to Obama who would join the seven neutral members in favoring a compromise.
The most likely deal would seat the full Michigan and Florida delegations but give each delegate half a vote. This would be in line with party rules, and with how Republicans dealt with the two contested states.
"If we do this right," said Alice Germond, secretary to the party -- she will be calling the roll at the Denver convention in August -- "everyone will be a little happy, even if no one will get everything they want." Germond, a rules committee member, said it is inconceivable the party will not find a way to seat delegations from both states. "I can't stand up there and say, 'Michigan! -- oops, only kidding.'"
Germond added that if the rules committee fails to resolve the issue at its May 31 meeting here, "it does not bode well for our convention, or our unity." Because of this, Clinton could see some of her own supporters defect n a rules vote rather than risk a party split. In an interview, DonFowler, a South Carolina committee member who supports Clinton, stated his own view very carefully: "I'm inclined to support the Clinton position, but that's not a carte blanche." Without endorsing rules committee efforts to split the differences, Fowler noted "an inclination to reach a compromise."
The controversy began when Michigan moved its primary up to Jan. 15 and Florida to Jan. 29, both in violation of party rules. The Democratic National Committee stripped the states of their delegates.
Complicating matters is the fact that while both Clinton and Obama appeared on Florida's ballot, Obama removed his name from Michigan's.
Clinton originally agreed with the party decision, and neither candidate campaigned in Florida or Michigan. But when she won both contests and it became clear she needed more delegates, she reversed course and demanded that the delegations be seated, a position her campaign reiterated in a conference call with reporters on Thursday.
Obama currently leads Clinton by roughly 185 delegates. According to the Clinton campaign, her challenge in the two states would net her 111 delegates if Michigan's uncommitted delegates continued to be counted as uncommitted. If the uncommitted delegates were allocated to Obama, that would cut her gain to 56. In the Michigan primary, Obama supporters urged a vote for the uncommitted slate.
The Obama campaign would like to split both delegations evenly between the candidates, but is ready to accept a version of the half-vote compromise. This could net Clinton 17 delegates, perhaps a few more.
Clinton also wants to validate the use of Michigan and Florida in popular vote counts. Without Michigan's numbers, she trails Obama in popular votes cast in the primaries so far.
The popular vote understates the weight of states that held caucuses and has no formal role in the nomination process. But Clinton is leaving no incendiary metaphor behind in tying her personal interests to an argument for democracy.
In Florida on Wednesday, she linked the controversy both to the battle for democracy in Zimbabwe and to the disputed election of George Bush that still enrages many Democrats.
The heat of Clinton's rhetoric threatens to end an informal cease-fire she and Obama have observed in recent weeks, and some Democrats fear it presages a fight to the convention. It may thus fall to Clinton's own supporters on the rules committee to force her to accept a settlement. By picking this fight, Clinton may guarantee that her defeat is sealed not by her enemies, but by her friends.
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.
By E.J. Dionne, Jr.