When the Democratic Party's Rules and Bylaws Committee meets on Saturday, the party will enter its most delicate moment of the entire primary season: what to do about the rogue states of Michigan and Florida, which held their primaries sooner than party rules allowed.
As punishment, the party stripped both states of all their convention delegates. But that sanction will not stand; the party cannot afford to alienate voters in two important battleground states.
There are many stakeholders. Hillary Rodham Clinton needs an outcome that cuts into Barack Obama's lead in delegates toward the Democratic presidential nomination. (She won both states, though Obama's name was not on the ballot in Michigan.) Senator Obama needs an outcome that does not threaten his lead, but also leaves Senator Clinton's supporters willing to back him in the fall.
Democratic voters in Florida and Michigan need to feel enfranchised and excited about supporting their party's ticket in November. And the Democratic National Committee needs to maintain control of its primary process. All signs point toward a loss of some (probably half) but not all of the Michigan and Florida delegates.
Democratic strategists and other analysts foresee a resolution this weekend – one that positions Obama to wrap up the nomination soon – but there's always a chance Team Clinton opts to appeal to the party's credentials committee, which does not meet until summer. Its decision would then face ratification by the convention in late August, which opens up the possibility of a floor fight.
Intraparty warfare could mortally wound the Democrats' chances of mounting a successful effort against presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain. And for that reason, party regulars don't see Senator Clinton damaging her standing in the party in that way.
"If Ted Kennedy is the lion of the Senate, at some point in the not-too-distant future, she could be the lioness of the Senate," says Peter Fenn, an unaffiliated Democratic strategist. "She needs to go back to that with some kind of strength and credibility, and if she's viewed as blowing up this process in the coming 12 weeks, then it's going to be extraordinarily difficult for her to do what she needs to do to be a real force in the Senate."
For now, though, the Clinton team is showing no signs of backing down.
On Wednesday, she circulated a lengthy memo aimed at uncommitted superdelegates – party leaders and elected officials who can back whomever they wish for the nomination – making her case for why she would be a stronger nominee than Obama. Cutting into Obama's delegate lead with Florida and Michigan delegates is part of her calculation. She also claims she is beating Obama in the "popular vote," but her math includes Florida and Michigan and calculates the caucus states' popular votes in a way that works to her advantage.
Clinton is expected to win big on Sunday in the Puerto Rican primary – another trove of votes she will add to her popular vote "lead." But because Puerto Ricans do not vote in the general election, that's another popular vote victory that will require an asterisk, analysts say.
Then there's Saturday's meeting. Clinton is nothing if not tough, and her chief knife fighter – Harold Ickes – will be in the room as a member of the Rules and Bylaws Committee. According to The Hill newspaper, 13 of the members support Clinton, eight back Obama, and nine are uncommitted. But just because there may be a committee tilt toward Clinton, that doesn't mean the members won't do what's in the best interests of the party, which is a compromise that everyone can live with, party activists say.
"I feel pretty confident that they're not going to come to a decision that would have the potential to change the outcome of the presidential race," says a Democratic strategist who asked not to be named.
At the end of the day, this strategist and others say Clinton will recognize that the math is the math and have to give up. The final two primaries, Montana and South Dakota, are on June 3, and Obama is expected to win both. After that, most if not all of the remaining superdelegates are likely to announce their endorsements, with Obama expected to wind up with a majority of all delegates.
He expects Clinton to endorse Obama and work hard for him, much the way Senator McCain endorsed George W. Bush and supported his candidacy after losing a tough nomination battle in 2000.
But in advance of Saturday's meeting, Clinton and her team are behaving as if they can beat the odds. "This thing is not over by a long shot," said communications director Howard Wolfson on MSNBC Wednesday.
The campaign is even still running contests to drum up support. In an e-mail released Tuesday under the name of daughter Chelsea, Clinton invited supporters to select the winning design for the campaign's next T-shirt.