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Brokered Democratic convention looking more likely
San Francisco Chronicle


January 07, 2008

WASHINGTON -- The Democratic race between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama shows every sign of heading to an August convention fight in Denver, where backroom deals and brawls over rules could trump primary voters in picking the nominee.

"The stakes are growing," said Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "The later you go in the process, the more is at stake. The nomination is now at stake. Iowa's about Iowa, but now it's about the nomination."

Emerging from the 22 primaries and caucuses Tuesday with delegate counts less than 10 percent apart, the two rivals head into a pitched round of contests that will reach a climax with March 4's big prizes of Texas and Ohio. Yet with each candidate splitting delegates according to the share of the vote received, neither is likely to be able to build a decisive lead.

And neither Clinton nor Obama is near to ceding the nomination.

That puts extraordinary pressure on the superdelegates who make up 40 percent of the total needed to secure the nomination. Superdelegates are not chosen by voters. They are elected officials and party operatives who are free to pick whomever they like, regardless of who won what primary.

Obama and Clinton's split decision Tuesday also makes the Florida and Michigan delegations potentially pivotal. Under normal circumstances, those states would hold 366 delegates, more than enough to tip the race. But under party rules, they have zero delegates this year, their punishment by the Democratic National Committee for holding early primaries.

All the candidates agreed not to campaign in either state. Clinton was the only one on the ballot in Michigan. She won both contests and even held a victory party in Florida. Her campaign now insists that she will try to have the Florida and Michigan delegates seated and their votes counted.

The superdelegates and the Florida and Michigan controversies are serious issues, said Tad Devine, a top aide to Al Gore in 2000 and to John Kerry in 2004. "I think they have to be handled by the campaigns and the party in a very deliberate way." If the Florida and Michigan delegations give Clinton a victory, "I think it would lead to a gigantic challenge ... I think it would have an enormously detrimental effect on the Democratic Party and whoever the nominee was."

Controversy also could erupt over superdelegates if party officials appear to be lining up against the candidate who won among ordinary primary voters, Devine said. "Everybody's got to be very careful about what they do and how they do it."

Heading into the next primaries, Obama holds an advantage starting Saturday with Louisiana, Nebraska and Washington state, followed by a "Potomac Primary" in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. Wisconsin, an important state historically for Democrats, follows a week later. The schedule gives Obama time for more of the retail politicking that vaulted his campaign into contention in Iowa.

Obama also demonstrated his national appeal Tuesday, sweeping 13 states to Clinton's eight. He can tap a deep vein of financial support from small donors flocking to his Web site.

Clinton relies more heavily on large donors, many of whom have hit their legal maximum. She said Wednesday that she would loan her campaign $5 million.

The Obama camp hopes to gain the lead among pledged delegates, the ones chosen by voters, to claim the nomination. Right now, Clinton leads in pledged delegates, 811 to 794, according to the Associated Press. That is an astonishingly tiny 17-delegate margin after nearly half the nation has voted.

Clinton is leading in superdelegates, 210 to 170. But a lead in superdelegates is uncertain because they are free to change their minds.

Polls put Clinton ahead by large margins in delegate-rich Ohio and Texas, as well as giant Pennsylvania, which does not hold a primary until May 8, long after this nomination is expected to be decided.

Clinton demonstrated an iron grip Tuesday on the Democratic base: Latinos, women and seniors. Those hard-core voters secured her victories in four of the six biggest states Tuesday, including California, the linchpin of Democratic hopes in November.

"No question she's got the built-in advantage that normally produces Democratic nominees: women, seniors and now Latinos," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. Obama relies more on blacks, men, young people and independents.

Latinos give Clinton a powerful edge going into Texas. If she continues to roll up wins in the big states, she might take the lead in delegates. More important, she can leverage those big-state victories to persuade superdelegates that she has what it takes to beat Republicans in the fall.

The Clinton campaign is banking on just that. Top Clinton campaign strategist Mark Penn conceded that Obama's "significant advantages" in the smaller states that are up next. He called Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania "absolutely critical for us."

But between now and March 4 lies a minefield of party caucuses in smaller states where Obama has proved his traction. The big danger for Clinton: Obama might rack up delegates and develop the perception that he is a front-runner in smaller states before Clinton can land a knockout.


E-mail Carolyn Lochhead at clochhead(at)
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