The upcoming meeting of the Democratic Party's once-obscure rules and bylaws committee is turning into the stage for a national showdown.
It took just seven minutes for the Democratic National Committee to give away the 500 seats open to the public for Saturday's meeting of the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee. Eight busloads of protesters will be outside the Washington, D.C., hotel to urge the committee to seat Florida's full delegation to the party's national convention.
And on Wednesday, the campaigns of Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton made clear in dueling conference calls with reporters that they remain miles apart on how to resolve the dispute over delegates for Florida and Michigan. The Clinton campaign wants the full delegations seated, and the Obama campaign has said it's willing to negotiate.
Obama is poised to reach the magical delegate number he needs to clinch the nomination. But that has only served to raise the stakes for Clinton, who sees seating all the delegates from Florida, a state she won handily in an unsanctioned primary, as her last chance to overcome Obama's lead.
By seating all of Florida's delegates, Clinton hopes to bolster her argument to the dwindling number of undecided superdelegates that she has captured more of the popular vote and therefore should get the nomination.
Among those who may go to bat for Florida on Saturday: Florida Democratic Party chairman Karen Thurman, Florida's Sen. Bill Nelson and DNC petitioner Jon Ausman.
"Clearly, (Nelson) is going to let the committee know his preference that the entire delegation be seated in accordance with the votes that were cast in January," said Bryan Gulley, a spokesman for Nelson, who endorsed Clinton.
"This isn't about Obama or Clinton," Gulley said. "It's about doing the right thing and seating the entire delegation. We want to make sure Florida is seated at the convention and that their voice is heard."
There has been speculation that the committee may decide to seat half the delegates (or all of them but give them a half-vote each). That's the route the Republican Party took.
"We don't know what they are going to do," said Mark Bubriski, communications director for the Florida Democratic Party. "What we're advocating is that Florida voters are respected and represented at the national convention. But we have not put forward a proposal or any sort of formula for how the delegates should be seated."
"Our hope is that the committee brings us resolution," Bubriski said.
Even that's not a sure thing.
Said Gulley: "I've heard it's even possible the committee may punt this issue and may not even act."
Outside the meeting, several hundred Floridians plan to protest on the sidewalk in front of the Marriott-Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Many of them will be Clinton supporters, but others say they are simply angry at the party.
"To say that we don't matter because of a rule that was not of our doing, that's unconscionable," said Blaine Whitford, who is a "special events" organizer for a group called Florida Demands Representation. "I don't mean to sound jaded, but I am. I prefer Democratic policies on the whole, but I don't like this. We don't elect presidents from 48 states in this country."
Florida Demands Representation and Florida Hispanic Caucus said they had 700 people register for the bus trip to Washington, which could get on the highway as early as today. Also, a group of Clinton supporters called Hillary Rapid Responders will be there. The Clinton campaign on Wednesday eagerly pointed out all the protesters, denying they had a hand in organizing it.
"Given what happened in Florida in 2000, I think it's understandable that people would feel strongly about it," said Howard Wolfson, Clinton spokesman.
Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday that their campaign did not organize any rally and urged calm.
"With a click of a mouse in the mid-Atlantic, we could get thousands of people there," Plouffe said.
"But in the interest of party unity we are not encouraging a protest. We don't think a scene is helpful as we try to bring the party together."