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WHO'S AHEAD? ANYONE'S GUESS

Turn on MSNBC, and you will learn that Sen. Barack Obama has more delegates (861) than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (855) in the Democratic presidential contest.

Visit Politico.com, the politics Web site, and you are told Clinton is ahead, with 1,000 delegates to Obama's 902. The New York Times, meanwhile, reports that Clinton has 912 and Obama 741. The Associated Press, whose numbers the St. Petersburg Times uses, gives Clinton 1,045 and Obama 960. And the campaigns offer up still more versions of the tally.

The divergent totals say as much about the byzantine nature of the Democratic nominating process as they do about the methods of various news organizations. Add to that delays in reporting results from the states that voted Tuesday, and the loss of delegates for some states, including Florida, that moved up their primaries in defiance of party rules, and voters are understandably puzzled.

While such uncertainty has been a feature of previous campaigns, the stakes are much higher this time, as Clinton and Obama are locked in a fierce battle. The disputed count can influence a candidate's ability to raise money, sway party leaders and get out the vote.

"The system is too complicated, and this is what happens as a result," said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant in New York. "They are going to fight over every last delegate."

The difficulty in assessing delegate strength lies in a multistep caucus system that is different from a primary, which is a one-day event where voters select and the results are usually binding. A caucus, on the other hand, is just the first stage of a process that can drag on until late spring before producing reliable numbers.

As a result, some news organizations (including the New York Times) do not incorporate caucus results in projecting counts, waiting instead until delegates from those states are certified.

As of Friday, seven states - Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada and North Dakota - had held precinct-level Democratic caucuses to choose delegates who will go to district or statewide party conventions in the coming months. It is at those conventions where delegates will officially be pledged to a candidate at the national convention in Denver, where 2,025 delegates are needed to win the nomination.

Rhodes Cook, a nonpartisan political analyst who once covered elections for Congressional Quarterly, said he "was driven nuts" when trying to analyze the caucuses, and generally steered clear of predicting the outcome of subsequent intrastate conventions.

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