WASHINGTON - The Democratic Party will search for a compromise over disputed convention delegates from Florida and Michigan on Saturday in what could be Hillary Clinton's last chance to gain ground on presidential rival Barack Obama.
The party's rules committee wades into the fight over the two delegations, which are barred from the August nominating convention in a dispute Clinton has made a rallying cry for her fading nomination bid.
Clinton faces an uphill battle in the 30-member panel to win her demand the delegations be seated at the convention with full voting rights. Obama supports alternatives that would seat fewer delegates.
The meeting, to be held in a Washington hotel, promises plenty of fireworks. Hundreds of public tickets were snapped up online in minutes, and busloads of Clinton supporters are expected to demonstrate outside.
At issue is a rules committee decision last year to strip Michigan and Florida of their delegates because they held nominating contests, both won by Clinton, earlier than party rules allowed.
Clinton signed a pledge along with the other candidates not to campaign in either state, and Obama took his name off the Michigan ballot. After winning both contests, Clinton began to press for the results to be recognized.
That would give her a significant boost in the popular vote tally and draw her closer to Obama in the delegate count as she tries to convince superdelegates -- party officials who can back any candidate -- that she is more electable than Obama in the November race against Republican John McCain.
Obama is close to clinching the nomination and could have the 2,026 delegates he needs on Tuesday, when Montana and South Dakota hold the last contests. But adding Florida's and Michigan's delegates to the mix would boost the number of delegates needed to win the nomination to 2,210.
Committee members appear to be closing in on a compromise that would seat half of the delegates from each state, or all the delegates with one-half vote each. That would move Obama's magic number to 2,118.
"I believe that the DNC's rules and bylaws committee will restore at least half of our delegates," Florida Democratic Party head Karen Thurman said in a letter to state supporters. "I sincerely hope that this meeting brings closure to a dispute that has gone on for way too long."
The Clinton campaign says that seating half the delegations is unacceptable. It has not said whether it would appeal the move to the party's credentials committee in July and ultimately to the convention floor in Denver -- a scenario that party officials desperately want to avoid.
"We will cross those streams when we come to them, but we fully expect they will do the right thing and seat full delegations with full votes," Clinton adviser Harold Ickes, a rules committee member, said of the panel.
Clinton, a New York senator, has cast the dispute in dramatic voting rights terms, visiting Florida last week to compare it to the state's recount in the 2000 presidential election and even Zimbabwe's disputed election in March.
Obama, an Illinois senator, says he is willing to compromise in hopes of unifying the party and moving on to the general election campaign against McCain.
Democratic National Committee lawyers sent an advisory memo to the committee suggesting it was within its rights to strip the states of their delegates and taking issue with Clinton's plan to seat the delegations.
The panel will hear challenges from Florida seeking to seat half of the pledged convention delegates and all of the state's superdelegates. A challenge from Michigan asks the panel to give 69 pledged delegates to Clinton and 59 to Obama.
The committee, which has 13 Clinton supporters on it, is free to arrive at its own solution. Members have said they want to be fair to both campaigns and mindful of the need to follow party rules to prevent a mad rush of states to hold contests earlier and earlier in the process.
The committee approved contests in only four states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina -- before Feb. 5 during this year's nominating race.