Political Capital with John Harwood

Dems' Pause To Consider Primary Do-Overs--Back Room Deals


The public phase of the Democratic presidential race will now pause, briefly, for a back-to-the-future experiment in backroom deal-making.

It's an unusual turn for the self-styled party of the people, which began four decades ago to throw open the doors of its nomination process to rank-and-file voters. But then Democrats have never faced a problem quite like the one that Michigan and Florida present for the race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

There've been disputed delegations, and rules challenges, since the post-1968 reforms in the Democratic nominating process. But none combined the combustible elements of large states, a live nomination fight, and the electoral version of instant replay.

That has produced the frenzy of private consultations involving the Clinton and Obama campaigns, their allies in Michigan and Florida, the two state parties and Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean. Its eventual resolution--before next month's Pennsylvania primary, and before the verdict from the uncommitted "super-delegates" --represents the next big variable in a nomination fight that has consistently defied prediction.

Ever since Michigan and Florida accelerated their primaries in defiance of party rule, all parties recognized them as outcasts. The Democratic Party's rules committee stripped them of their delegates, the major candidates declined to campaign there, and in Michigan Barack Obama removed his name from the ballot.

Do-Over Primaries?

What no one anticipated was a nomination race extending long enough that their exclusion mattered. When Delaware jumped ahead in 1996, an unopposed President Clinton had no trouble smoothing over a similar problem before the Democratic convention.

So some Rules Committee members who voted to strip Michigan and Florida of their delegates want to give both states another chance. "They should do 'em both over," says Elaine Kamarck of Massachusetts, a former aide to Al Gore.

Yet the complications of staging new contests--which under party rules must take place by June 10--are daunting even to the most experienced Democratic professionals. Proposals for mail-in balloting, "firehouse" caucuses, and full primaries--at total costs of up to $30-million--have all faced steep procedural and political objections.

One clue to the final resolution may lie in the two states' divergent political cultures. Michigan once relied on party-financed caucuses rather than state-financed primary elections. That's made it easier for Michigan Democrats to devise a plan for a party-financed do-over primary, which the state Legislature may vote on this week.

Florida's Democratic Party, lacking that tradition, has fallen into stalemate. Instead, elected officials and party leaders are discussing plans to seat Florida delegates under a negotiated formula.

One emerging option is to seat Florida's delegates in proportion to the outcome of the tainted Jan. 29 vote, but giving each delegate only one-half vote. That would slice Mrs. Clinton's edge to 19 from 38; the number might be whittled down even further by recalculating results after removing from consideration candidates who have left the race.

To Tad Devine, a veteran of Democratic nomination fights since the Carter era, that's more practical and cost-effective than staging a new contest that, like other big primaries this year, wouldn't likely produce a massive delegate shift anyway. It would also align Democrats with the 50% delegate penalty that Republican imposed on Florida, which nevertheless proved crucial to John McCain's emergence as GOP stand-bearer.

"When you get right down to it, we're going to spend $12-million for 12 delegates?" Mr. Devine asks. As queasy as a negotiated solution might make reformers, he adds, this one might have to be settled at the very top: "It will be solved by Obama and Clinton--and maybe even at that level."

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