May 29, 2008 — -- In the latest twist in the ongoing Democratic nomination saga, all eyes this weekend will be on a small group of 30 little-known Democratic Party insiders meeting inside a Washington, D.C., hotel Saturday to resolve one of the most hotly contested disputes of this campaign.
The Democratic National Committee panel is charged with figuring out how many of Florida and Michigan's delegates should be seated at the party's convention in August in Denver and allowed officially to participate in the naming of the party's presidential nominee.
In the balance hangs the tricky math that has denied the party thus far a clear nominee in this closely pitched battle between Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois.
The panel's decision could further prolong the bitter nomination battle by increasing the number of delegates a candidate must reach to secure the party's nomination.
While Clinton's campaign is demanding that 100 percent of the disputed delegates be seated, a move that would give her trailing candidacy a much needed delegate boost, many of the panel members reached by ABC News this week agreed Clinton isn't going to get what she wants.
"They'd [the Clinton campaign] have to persuade the committee that there was no violation of the rules and I haven't seen anything to support that," said James Roosevelt Jr., co-chair of the committee's rules and bylaws committee, who said he is remaining neutral in his support until the delegate dispute is settled.
Even if all of Clinton's delegates were seated -- something Roosevelt said the panel isn't considering -- that would not be enough for her to close Obama's delegate lead, which stands at 206 delegates more than Clinton, according to ABC News' delegate scorecard.
In any other year, the obscure committee rules and bylaws committee meeting would occur with little fanfare. But this year, when the Democratic Party made 300 tickets to watch the meeting available to the public this week, the tickets were snapped up in less than a minute.
Pro-Clinton supporters from Count Every Vote '08 are planning a protest outside the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel where the panel is holding its public meeting. The Obama campaign is encouraging its supporters not to attend but to spend the weekend registering voters instead.
"We don't think it's a helpful dynamic to create chaos and, in the interest of party unity, we're encouraging our supporters not to protest," said Obama campaign manager David Plouffe.
Representatives from both campaigns and state party officials from Florida and Michigan will make their presentations at the meeting, which, for the first time in recent history, will be covered intensely by the television news media.
The Michigan Democratic Party has proposed splitting its 128 pledged delegates by awarding 69 to Clinton and 59 to Obama. A proposal from Florida would divide its 185 pledged delegates equally.
All sides are hoping for a resolution to this months-long dispute over Florida and Michigan delegates Saturday.
"Every day that the DNC delays recognizing Michigan and Florida, however they come out, makes it harder for our nominee to win in the fall and it plays into the Republican hand," said former Gov. James Blanchard, the Clinton campaign's Michigan co-chair.
The panel is being forced to revisit its August 2007 decision to strip Florida and Michigan of 100 percent of their combined 368 convention delegates.
The decision was designed to punish state legislators who broke national party rules last year by scheduling their primary contests earlier in January.
At the time, the national party was trying to bring order to what was becoming a messy primary calendar, with numerous states jockeying to be among the first four primary states.
Unhappy with the national party decision not to include their states among the four early voting states, legislators in Florida and Michigan defiantly scheduled their primaries for January, prompting traditional first-in-the-nation-states Iowa and New Hampshire to leapfrog their contests even earlier.
Adding their support, Obama and Clinton signed a party pledge not to campaign in either state -- and they honored that pledge. The Obama campaign even pulled his name from the ballot in Michigan. When voting occurred, Democratic turnout was low and the results were considered insignificant at the time. Clinton won Florida and also beat "uncommitted" on the ballot in Michigan.
But now, five months and 53 contests later, neither Obama nor Clinton has achieved the 2,026 delegates needed to secure the party's nomination.
That has placed the spotlight squarely on the Democratic committee -- forcing it to revisit its earlier decision.
"I must have received about 1,000 e-mails in the last two weeks about this," said Don Fowler, a panel member and former committee chair who is supporting Clinton.
"We've been talking to the campaigns regularly and we each receive somewhere on the order of 1,000 e-mails a day, not to mention phone calls and hard copy letters," said Roosevelt, the panel co-chair, CEO of a Massachusetts health-care company and the grandson of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
When it comes to politics, rules, it would seem, are sometimes made to be broken.
"When we made the rules, none of us could have predicted the kind of primary that we've had, and the importance of those states," said Alice Huffman, a member of the rules and bylaws committee and a Clinton supporter.
"We thought that it would have been over on Super Tuesday like in most races," Huffman said.
Under pressure from party leadership, the campaigns and Democratic influentials from these two important battleground states, Democratic sources tell ABC News the Democratic National Committee is advising panel members to seat 50 percent of the delegates from the Sunshine and Wolverine states.
"There will be some seating from Florida and Michigan. We certainly want to have a 50-state convention," said Alice Germond, the committee secretary and a longtime member of the rules and bylaws panel.
"Whatever we do will be fair to both campaigns, will not advantage one over another," Germond said.
A 50-50 split of the disputed delegates would keep Obama's edge over Clinton in the delegate race where it is today -- but a decision to tilt the Florida and Michigan delegates in Clinton's favor would put Obama further from reaching the so-called "magic number" that secures the nomination.
Also at stake, the goodwill of two important battleground states. Eyeing presumptive Republican candidate Sen. John McCain's general election head start, the Democratic Party doesn't want to alienate Florida and Michigan going into the fall campaign season.
"The whole thing is a mess," said Rhodes Cook, author of the book "The Presidential Nominating Process" and a newsletter on national politics.
"Florida is the third largest state in terms of electoral votes … and Sen. John Kerry won Michigan by only three points," Cook said. "These are big prizes in the fall that either party could win and will be strongly contested -- the Democratic Party doesn't want to alienate tens of thousands of potential Democratic voters."
The Clinton campaign has continued to make seating of the disputed delegates a central issue in her ongoing nomination fight, likening the battle to the 2000 election Florida recount battle.
"It is the position that recognizes the vote of 2.3 million people, which just cannot be blithely swept aside as the Obama campaign apparently has been willing to do, month after month after month," senior Clinton campaign adviser Harold Ickes told reporters on a conference call Wednesday.
Ickes is a member of the committee and voted last year to strip Florida and Michigan of their delegates.
That change of opinion is not lost on Allan Katz, a Florida city commissioner and rules and bylaws committee member who is supporting Obama.
"I was sitting right next to Harold [Ickes] when he voted to take all the votes away from Florida and Michigan," said Katz.
"Fast forward many month, many votes and millions of dollars later and that has changed," he said.
Katz would like to see the delegates split down the middle but would entertain "some acknowledgement of the result" to appease Clinton's supporters on the panel, including Ickes, and senior Clinton campaign adviser Tina Flournoy, also a member of the rules and bylaws committee.
The committee includes 13 members who are supporting Clinton and eight who are supporting Obama. The remaining nine are undeclared.
The Obama campaign originally wanted a 50-50 split of the delegates between Clinton and himself but said Wednesday that it would be willing to compromise on the configuration of how to award the Florida and Michigan delegations.
"I think the Clinton campaign is out there saying 'no compromise, only 100 percent' -- we're willing to compromise and I think that's where most of the party is," Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, told reporters on a conference call Wednesday.
"We have fought hard all throughout the country for delegates and the fact that we are willing to essentially seat her delegates we do not think is an insignificant gesture on our part," Plouffe said.
However the move will push Obama farther away from reaching the magic number of delegates needed to secure the nomination. Giving the Florida and Michigan delegates half a vote would increase the number of overall delegates Obama needs to get the nomination by about 25 or 35 delegates.
Many of the panel members who spoke with ABC News maintained that they want the outcome to be viewed as fair and ultimately something that helps the party move past the protracted delegate dispute.
"We would like to respect the process, help accommodate the two states who violated the rules but also unify the party," said Donna Brazile, a panel member and ABC News contributor. "I don't have a donkey in this battle -- just my conscience."
"It would be very troublesome for the Democratic National Committee to put her over the top in a committee meeting," said Huffman.
Less clear is the damage that revisiting the rules will do to future presidential election calendars. Party officials worry that without any consequences to states who violate party rules, some states will try to hold primary contests even before the Christmas holidays, significantly changing the dynamic of the early primary season.
"If the rules were not honored then we could have serious chaos in 2012 or in fact in 2011," Roosevelt said. "What's to stop them from going on Halloween?"
With three states left to vote in primaries next week and hundreds of superdelegates still undecided, Clinton still has a path to the nomination.
But after Saturday's meeting and Tuesday's primaries, Clinton will be almost out of moves, left to pin her hopes on getting a major swing of superdelegates -- those 797 members of Congress, party officials and state party representatives who are free to vote for either candidate at the party's convention.
Meanwhile, Obama could sew up the nomination as soon as next week, especially if there is not a massive swing of superdelegates in Clinton's favor.
The Clinton campaign could appeal the party's rules and bylaws committee decision after Saturday, but that is unlikely because any challenge would have to be taken up by the DNC convention credentials committee, where Obama is thought to have a plurality of supporters.
ABC News' Teddy Davis, David Chalian, Rick Klein, Karen Travers, Sunlen Miller, James Gerber and Talal Alkhatib contributed to this report.