WASHINGTON — They invoked the uncounted Florida votes in 2000. They sermonized about rules and fundamental democratic principles. There were cheers and jeers inside the packed ballroom, and chants and picket lines outside.
After 10 hours of dramatic political theater, national Democratic Party leaders Saturday night finally put to rest their bitter debate over how to handle the disputed votes in Florida: send a full delegation to the Democratic National Convention in August, but each delegate will have only half a vote based on Florida's unauthorized Jan. 29 presidential primary.
More controversial was how the Rules and Bylaws Committee handled Michigan's presidential primary, giving delegates to Sen. Barack Obama even though his name was not on the ballot there.
"There's been a lot of talk about party unity — let's all come together, and put our arms around each other," said a livid Harold Ickes, a senior adviser to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and a member of the rules committee that approved the deal. "I submit to you ladies and gentlemen, hijacking four delegates … is not a good way to start down the path of party unity. … Mrs. Clinton has instructed me to reserve her rights to take this to the credentials committee."
Clinton's camp says she was entitled to four additional Michigan delegates.
The 30-member committee had gone behind closed doors for nearly three hours to privately hammer out a workable deal, and when the members returned for the vote the crowd had thinned and ardent Clinton supporters easily outnumbered Obama backers.
The committee's 19-8 decision on Michigan and the prospect of a bitter floor fight at the convention drew cheers from furious Clinton backers. "Denver! Denver! Denver!"
Clinton will net 19 delegates from Florida and five from Michigan. While it could bolster her claim that she won the popular vote, it's not nearly enough for her to catch up to Obama, who is poised to clinch the Democratic nomination for president soon after the primary voting finally ends Tuesday.
But for the New York senator who has made "Count every vote" her chief rallying cry in recent weeks, the recognition of Florida was enough for her to declare a moral victory with America's biggest battleground state.
Florida Democrats backing both Clinton and Obama were thrilled with the outcome, having last year had all 211 delegates stripped away by this same panel as punishment for scheduling a primary earlier than allowed under national party rules. The primary had been officially meaningless, and the candidates agreed not to campaign in the state.
"They recognized the sanctity of the Florida vote and the Jan. 29 vote. This is the beginning of the healing process for Florida Democrats and for all Florida voters,'' said former state Democratic chairman Mitch Ceasar, an uncommitted Democratic National Committee member from Broward County who also discounted the significance of the angry protesters.
Emotions on display
Still, emotions among Clinton supporters inside the Wardman Park Marriott were on full display as committee members declined to count 100 percent of the unsanctioned Florida and Michigan primaries. Members were jeered after a motion to fully seat Florida's delegation failed 12-15. They then voted 27-0 to give Florida delegates half a vote.
From the crowd came:
"Lipstick on a pig!"
"McCain in '08!"
"You just took away votes!"
"We're giving you back some, too,'' responded committee member Alice Huffman, who had tried to get Florida all its votes back.
The Florida Democratic Party is often known for chaos and internal dissension, but the Florida crew addressing the DNC rules panel Saturday was at the height of unity with its often passionate speeches and in the face of sometimes pointed questions from panel members.
Speaking for the Obama campaign, U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler of Boca Raton said Obama embraced an appeal by Florida DNC member Jon Ausman to count the Jan. 29 election and give delegates half a vote, even though Clinton would gain from Florida as many delegates as she won in Ohio and Pennsylvania combined.
"Sen. Obama offers this concession in order to promote reconciliation with Florida's voters,'' Wexler said.
"If we in Florida can get it together and be unified, if we can get it together and keep our eye on the ball of November, so can you.''
Speaking for the Clinton campaign, state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, a civil rights pioneer from Tampa, drew roars from the rowdy crowd as she talked of the 1.75-million Floridians who turned out in January, despite being told their votes might not count.
"They followed the maxim of Maya Angelou who said, 'You may not think you'll be heard. Speak anyway,' '' said Joyner, calling for all Florida delegates to have full votes in the nomination. "They voted in record numbers with the belief that reason would prevail."
But when asked about the prospect of Florida delegates getting only half-votes, Joyner was pragmatic: "You ask for what you want. In life you don't always get what you want."
How the Democrats reached this point is a story of thoroughly botched predictions, bare-fisted politics, personal pride and missed opportunities. Leaders in Michigan and Florida, determined to have greater say in the nomination, insisted on moving their primaries into January, despite warnings that they would face penalties from both national parties.
National Democrats kept assuming Florida would comply with the rules, while Florida Democrats for a long time dismissed the DNC's threats.
Republicans lost half their delegates, which didn't stop their candidates from campaigning ferociously in Florida's primary. When the DNC rules committee last August voted to strip Florida of all its delegates, almost no one expected that the nomination battle would extend well beyond February and that the candidates would be fighting delegate by delegate, vote by vote into June.
"The committee arrived at its decision with three basic principles in mind: One, that we must be fair to the voters in both states. Two, that we must be fair to both campaigns who abided by the rules in good faith. And three, that we must be fair to the 48 states that followed the rules," rules committee co-chairs Alexis Herman and Jim Roosevelt said in a statement after the votes.
Michigan posed a much stickier problem than Florida because Clinton was the only major candidate who kept her name on the ballot. She won 54 percent of the Jan. 19 Michigan vote, while 40 percent of Michigan Democrats voted for "uncommitted."
"Most of the proposals seem just totally contrary to the (DNC) charter,'' said rules committee member Don Fowler of South Carolina. "The nut of the problem in Michigan is how do you get some votes to Obama in a way that meets the charter and the rules. I don't think there's any question Obama deserves some votes out of Michigan."
After former Michigan Gov. James Blanchard, speaking for the Clinton campaign, mentioned his mother's 85th birthday, rules committee member Donna Brazile brought up her family.
Play by the rules
"My mama taught me to play by the rules and respect those rules,'' she said. "My mother taught me, and I'm sure your mother taught you, that when you decide to change the rules, middle of the game, end of the game, that is referred to as cheating."
Clinton did play by the rules, Blanchard responded, because she did not campaign in the state and was not involved in moving its primary into January.
The votes Saturday raised to 2,118 the number of delegates needed to clinch the nomination, leaving Obama 66 delegates shy. The final contests are Puerto Rico today and Montana and South Dakota on Tuesday.
Florida's full Democratic executive committee is expected to formally ratify the DNC committee's decision June 14 in Hollywood. One remaining wrinkle is the prospect that the Obama campaign could reject some of the Florida Obama delegates chosen in grass roots elections.
Also, the decision means party activists should finally learn what hotel they've been assigned in Denver, which the national party had refused to disclose.
Times Washington bureau chief Bill Adair contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8241.