Clinton challenges Obama to back primaries

March 19, 2008 10:37:17 AM PDT
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton bluntly challenged Barack Obama to agree to new primaries in Michigan and Florida on Wednesday and said it was "wrong, and frankly un-American" not to have the two delegations seated at the Democratic National Convention. "Senator Obama speaks passionately on the campaign trail about empowering the American people," said the former first lady, who trails her rival in delegates won to date. "Today I am asking him to match those words with actions."

Obama has yet to declare his support or opposition, although his campaign has raised a number of procedural and legal questions about the most recent proposal for an early June primary in Michigan.

"The proposal offers a rerun for the state but not for all the voters," Bob Bauer, Obama's election lawyer, wrote in a memo during the day. He warned of the possibility of numerous legal challenges and embarrassment to the party.

Florida and Michigan both held primaries in January on a schedule that violated Democratic Party rules, and have been stripped of their convention delegates as a result.

Clinton made a hurriedly arranged trip to Michigan to dramatize her support for new primaries, at a time when some state party officials have been drafting legislation to hold a primary in June.

Clinton said nothing less than the outcome of the general election may be at stake in the dispute over the two states. "The road to a Democratic White House goes through Michigan and Florida," she said.

But there were strong political calculations at work, as well. Clinton trails Obama in convention delegates after primaries and caucuses in more than 40 states, and her chances of catching up are remote at best.

Lopsided victories in second primaries in Florida and Michigan would help narrow the delegate deficit.

Even if she fell short, victories over Obama would strengthen her argument that party leaders who attend the convention as superdelegates should consider a candidate's ability to win in key states in the fall election before they pick a candidate.

Originally, Michigan was to have 128 delegates at stake in its primary; Florida's total was 185. Superdelegates swelled the totals.

Clinton won the renegade primaries in both states, although all the candidates had pledged not to campaign in either and Obama removed his name from the Michigan ballot.

Clinton referred to that in her brief appearances before members of an audience gathered in an AFSCME union building.

"When others made the decision to remove their names from the ballot I didn't because I believe your voices should count," she said. "And that's why I've been saying we need to either count the votes that have already been cast in Michigan or Florida or have new full and fair elections."

Bauer's memo did not go as far as flatly opposing the proposal under consideration, but it cited numerous potential difficulties.

He said any revote would have to be approved by the Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act and noted that it would be paid for by private funds. He also warned of possible lawsuits by Democrats or independents who voted in last winter's Republican primary, and would be barred from the second primary as a result. "In other words, the proposal offers a rerun for the state but not for all the voters," he wrote.

Both Michigan and Florida presumably are friendly territory for the New York senator. Michigan is home to large numbers of white blue-collar workers, many of whom have favored her in other primary states.

Obama's difficulty in reassuring Jewish voters about his support for Israel makes Florida problematic for him in a primary, as does the presence of large numbers of Hispanic voters.

Clinton's case was strengthened during the day when the two leaders of the Democratic rules committee issued a statement saying the emerging plan in Michigan was in keeping with party rules. The entire committee has yet to review the proposal.

Plans for a revote in Florida collapsed over the weekend, leaving the fate of that state's delegation in doubt.

In Florida, state Sens. Steve Geller and Jeremy Ring proposed one solution: award half the state's delegates based on the Jan. 29 vote and the other half evenly between the candidates or based on Obama and Clinton's percentage of the national popular vote or delegates earned. The latter calculation would exclude Michigan and Florida.

"We're not going to put one candidate or the other over the top. We can't do that even if we had an election where everything was counted and went perfectly," Ring said. "This eases the angst."

They acknowledged that their math may not be perfect, but estimated Clinton would have a net gain of about 18 delegates.


Associated Press Writer Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee contributed to this report.