04/15/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Hillary Clinton's Michigan/Florida Strategy: Keep The Dispute Alive

Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean's chance of achieving an early compromise on the seating of the 210-member Florida and 156-member Michigan delegations faces a tough hurdle: the strategic importance to the Clinton campaign of keeping the dispute alive and kicking all the way to the convention.

If Clinton maintains her commitment to take the nomination contest to Denver in August, she needs to have an issue other than her own candidacy to maintain legitimacy and to use as a lever to build momentum during the committee meetings in the week before the convention -- and on the convention floor itself.

"In every recent convention contest, there has been a credentials, rules or platform dispute that has shaped the outcome," said Carl Wagner, a Democrat who has been deeply involved in DNC and convention politics -- as Edward Kennedy's 1980 national political director and convention manger; as the DNC's director of strategic planning from 1989 to 1993; and as manager of the coordinated presidential, congressional and state Democratic campaigns of 1992.

Recent nomination fights that go to the convention have all had a key ingredient: a hard-fought "test question" or issue (analogous to the two-state issue this year) preceding the actual up-and-down vote on the candidates. The outcome of the fight over the test issue then sets the stage for the selection of the nominee.

Examples include Eisenhower-Taft in 1952, when Ike's forces won a "Fair Play" credentials fight and with it, the nomination; the 1972 McGovern-Humphrey contest which was settled by votes on the make up of the California and Illinois delegations; and the Carter-Kennedy fight over the health care provisions of the party platform that were resolved by giving the Kennedy forces the opportunity to debate as their consolation prize.

In this respect, the very fact of having a major issue to take to the convention could well prove to be more important to Clinton than the actual settlement of the two-state seating issue.

Michigan and Florida violated national party rules by holding their primaries earlier in the season than party rules allowed, and, at the moment, the DNC has ruled that these two delegations will not be seated. Clinton won the primaries in both states.

Both Obama and Clinton appeared on the ballot in Florida, although each candidate abided by DNC rules and neither campaigned there.

The situation in Michigan is more problematic: Obama took his name off the ballot, while Clinton left hers on. The result was a 55 percent victory for Clinton; with 40 percent of the ballots cast for "uncommitted" and the rest for minor candidates.

So far, the Clinton campaign has attempted to cast the two-state dispute in a political/moral light, stressing the voting rights issue as well as the danger that no matter which of the candidates -- Obama or Clinton -- is the eventual nominee, if Michigan and Florida delegates are not seated, the dispute could suppress Democratic turnout and give the combined 44 electoral votes to the GOP.

"It is a bedrock American principle: we are all equal in the voting booth. No matter where you were born or how much money you were born into, no matter the color of your skin or where you worship, your vote deserves to count," Clinton's campaign declared in an email seeking signatures on a petition to support the seating of the Florida and Michigan delegations. "But millions of people in Florida and Michigan who went to the polls aren't being heard. The delegates they elected won't be seated at the Democratic National Convention in Denver this August -- and that's just not fair to those voters."

In 2000, Al Gore and George W. Bush split the Florida vote, and Bush was ruled the Florida winner in a highly controversial decision by the Supreme Court. In 2004, Bush beat John Kerry in Florida by a more substantial 381,000 votes. In 2004, Kerry won Michigan, although the margin, 51-48, was small enough to provoke worries for Democrats concerning future elections.

Neither the Obama nor the Clinton campaign show signs of a willingness to compromise -- although they would be foolish to reveal such a willingness at this stage in the negotiations.

This past week, Dean met separately with top Democrats from Florida and Michigan, and after each session, participants pledged to work out a compromise. In a joint statement issued after the Michigan meeting, for example, attendees declared their "commitment to doing everything we can to ensure that a Michigan delegation is seated in Denver this summer. ... We have every expectation that we will succeed in that endeavor, and then go on to win in November."

"I don't know what the word compromise means," Harold Ickes, lead delegate strategist for Clinton, told The Huffington Post. "If it means Hillary Rodham Clinton should give up delegates, they are barking up a very tall tree."

If the Florida and Michigan delegations were seated -- as currently constituted on the basis of primary results to date -- Clinton would gain 56 pledged delegates, according to Ickes. With Clinton now 134 delegates behind Obama, 1636 to 1502, according to RealClearPolitics, a 56-seat pick-up could have major consequences, with upcoming primaries in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Puerto Rico conceivably providing the New York Senator with enough delegates to catch up to -- or even overtake -- Obama.

The Obama camp is determined to prevent Clinton from gaining the large block of delegates up for grabs in Florida and Michigan, calling instead for splitting each state's delegation down the middle.

"A 50-50 split of the delegates is an eminently fair solution, especially since originally Senator Clinton herself said the Michigan primary wouldn't 'count for anything,'" said Obama campaign manager David Plouffe.

A large block of DNC members and Democratic activists believe that it is important for discipline, and for the integrity of the primary and caucus process, that Michigan and Florida suffer a substantial penalty for breaking party rules.

It is just this kind of conflict, involving political self interest, larger questions of voting rights, party rules, and democratic ethics that create grounds for high-intensity intra-party warfare.