Democrats divided as US primary process is put on trial

The Democratic Party will have a long road to restoring unity in its ranks after supporters of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton engaged in a bitter battle over Florida and Michigan this weekend, laying bare the pitfalls of the long and complicated US presidential nomination process, dpa reported.

Nearly five months since the start of a series of state-by-state election contests that determine each party's nominee for president, Democratic officials were forced into a compromise Saturday that satisfied few and exposed deep divisions between both the candidates and the two states at the heart of the controversy.

Clinton advisor Harold Ickes spoke of a "hijacking" of the democratic process after party officials reinstated only half of Florida and Michigan's voting rights and failed to fully reflect Clinton's margin of victory in the latter.

The ruling gave the former first lady only about 25 delegates more than Obama, barely cutting into the Illinois senator's lead of close to 200 delegates and bringing him tantalizingly close to capturing the party's nomination.

Only three more primary contests are left - Puerto Rico on Sunday followed by South Dakota and Montana on Tuesday - and many party leaders have openly said they want the nomination wrapped up by the end of June to allow preparations for the general election campaign.

Ickes said Clinton reserved the right to appeal Saturday's decision - a threat that could carry the campaign into July and possibly as far as the party's nominating convention in August in Denver, Colorado.

Reflecting the sharp divide that has emerged among Democrats in recent months, Ickes' scathing denunciations of the compromise drew some of the loudest cheers from observers at the public meeting of the party's Rules and Bylaws Committee.

But the raucous gathering in Washington also exposed a bitterness among state party officials, who lamented that their constituents had been disenfranchised and openly fretted that Democrats may have handed November's election to the Republicans' presumptive nominee John McCain.

McCain and his supporters "never fail to remind the voters of Michigan how the Democrats have ignored Michigan, don't care about Michigan and don't deserve the support of Michigan's voters in the fall," warned Mark Brewer, chairman of the state's Democratic Party.

Saturday's 10-hour committee meeting marked the culmination of a year-long fight between states over who should hold the greatest influence over the US intra-party nomination process.

Officials argued it was unfair and undemocratic for Iowa and New Hampshire to hold their elections well before other states - a practice in place since the 1970s that has given candidates with little money or name recognition the opportunity to gain momentum ahead of contests in more populous states.

More than 20 states jockeyed for a greater say in the 2008 election by moving their polls to the earliest-allowed date under party rules - February 5 - while Florida and Michigan directly challenged those rules by moving their primaries into January.

The Democratic National Committee consequently stripped both states of all their delegates - Republicans in contrast only cut their vote by half - in an effort to preserve the integrity of the system.

Florida and Michigan held their contests anyway, but few Democrats at the time expected the feud would come back to haunt the party. With the Obama-Clinton campaign going down to the wire, the rules committee was forced to reconsider its punishment or risk alienating the Democratic voters of two key swing states.

Michigan's January 15 primary was especially controversial. Unlike in Florida, Obama and other candidates had removed their names from the ballot in deference to the party rules. Anyone who supported Obama had to vote "uncommitted," while others stayed away believing the election would not count.

That left party officials on Saturday with the unenviable task of trying to apportion delegates in a manner that accurately reflected the voters' preferences.

"How do you have a fair reflection of a flawed primary?" asked Michigan Senator Carl Levin, who pleaded for party unity and argued on behalf of the eventual compromise, which essentially halved Clinton's 15-point victory margin in the state.

The US primary system, which was last overhauled by Democrats after a bitter convention fight in 1972, has rarely been thrown under such close scrutiny as in this election.

Presidential nominees in recent history have been decided well before all 50 states have their say, but this year's razor-thin contest between Obama and Clinton will likely force the party to examine its nomination process once again before the next White House run in 2012.

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