Primary Infighting Threatens to Divide Democratic Party

Article excerpt

Byline: Donald Lambro, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The Democrats once again are fighting over their presidential nominating procedures - from Florida and Michigan to superdelegates - in an escalating war that some leaders say threatens to divide the party and has prompted calls for rule changes.

Party rules have forced the Democratic National Committee to strip the two November swing states of their delegates to the national convention, triggering a scramble on how to represent them at the August gathering in Denver. The DNC chief and senators from both states seemed on yesterday's political talk shows to settle on a mail-in primary as the option with the fewest problems.

"The only thing I know to do is to do it over," Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, who is pushing the mail-in option, told CBS' "Face the Nation." On ABC's "This Week" program Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, said it's an option under consideration there, too.

DNC Chairman Howard Dean called a mail-in vote "a very good process" that has been used elsewhere, both in similar "do-over" scenarios and in Oregon for its general election.

"It's one [option] that we discussed early on when we were negotiating with Florida hoping to head all this stuff off," the former Vermont governor said on CBS.

Apart from the fight over Michigan and Florida, the Democrats' proportional delegate-selection process has resulted in a race where neither Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton nor Sen. Barack Obama can pull clear of the other, and that may put the almost 800 superdelegates in the position of effectively choosing the party's nominee at the convention in August, regardless of the primary results.

The scenario that Democratic leaders fear most is a credentials committee fight over seating the Florida and Michigan delegations. If it's stalemated, the party becomes open to charges of disenfranchising millions of their voters; and if it's resolved in a way that's seen as a backroom deal or an unfair apportionment of the states' 367 combined delegates, the party could face an ugly split.

Mrs. Clinton easily won both January primaries, reflecting her name recognition and national poll standing then. But per DNC request, nobody including the former first lady campaigned in either state and hers was the only major name even on the ballot in Michigan.

If a solution is not found that is agreeable to both sides, the result "would be a disaster for the party which would be a very divisive floor fight and a lot of bitter feelings about whoever gets the nomination that somehow it was stolen by a backroom deal," said former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta.

Mr. Dean agreed, saying yesterday that either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Obama will lose, and the party's unity and prospects for success in November depend on that candidate's supporters thinking the process was fair.

"We will beat John McCain, if we're united. And in order to be united, the loser in the race has to feel that they've been treated fairly within the rules," he said. "That's how you keep the party united. So that's the number-one thing. We will follow the rules."

Mr. Panetta, who is supporting Mrs. Clinton, thinks "the whole primary system needs to be re-examined. We need to have a regional system rather than have states fighting to be first in line. We ought to move toward a winner-take-all primary process. …