WASHINGTON — The hotel where the 30 Democratic rule makers met Saturday -- to decide whether rules are rules or whether rules are made to be broken -- was within howling distance of the National Zoo.
Outside the stately Marriott Wardman Park Hotel were clusters of women with "Hear Me Roar" placards in their fists who came from all over the country -- $4 a gallon be damned -- to make what could be a last stand for their Hillary.
Inside was a ballroom filled with suits who were looking for a "dignified and high-minded resolution" to a problem threatening the Democratic Party, which should be in the driver's seat en route to the White House. Instead, it felt like they were preparing to throw one of the party's rock-star candidates under the bus.
So as far as people like Mary Alyson Pilagin, who drove from Raleigh, N.C., were concerned, the zoo was a fitting metaphor.
"The rules are insane," said Pilagin, 26, an office manager for a restaurant company. It was hot and she had on sunscreen as she marched with her "Count Every Vote" sign past sidewalk cafes where Washingtonians calmly sipped mimosas.
A civil war -- that's how it felt. Democrat against Democrat. Not long ago, they were united in the cause to wrest the White House from the Bush legacy, end the war, stop global warming, empower the middle class.
But now many of them were so angry they said they planned to defect from their party for the first time if Hillary Rodham Clinton did not emerge as the nominee.
"This should never have gotten this far, especially after the mess of Florida," Pilagin said.
A reprise of Nightmare 2000, the Florida ballot debacle, but this time the party sticking it to the Democratic Party was the Democratic Party.
"It's always messed up when it comes to Florida, and we're sick of it," said Johnnie Mae Collins, 60, who had ridden a tour bus for 10 hours with her friends from Jacksonville, Fla., stopping more than usual to be sure nobody got a blood clot.
This was all so stupid, Collins had decided. All the Florida Democrats did was vote. The party made some rule that the votes of Florida and Michigan wouldn't count because the primaries were too early. None of that was the voters' fault (did they set the calendar?), and who winds up getting punished? The voters.
And not just the voters who voted, but also the voters who didn't vote -- the ones who might have turned out had they not been told about a million times that their votes weren't going to count. Who knows how they would have spoken?
From outside, it was clear that the suits inside needed to find some way to count the votes. If not, a bunch of irritated Democratic women in two key swing states might stay home in November -- or, worse, cast their lot with Republican John McCain.
Clinton's campaign didn't organize what her supporters did, but it didn't dissuade them, either; Barack Obama's camp discouraged its supporters from demonstrating, mindful not to offend Hillaryites whom they hope will come their way by Nov. 4.
Judging by the anger index out there Saturday, that wasn't going to happen any time soon. They felt robbed -- by Obama, by the Democratic National Committee, but mostly by the media.
"I'm about ready to kick you guys down the street," said one woman from Minnesota when approached by a reporter.
"And it wasn't the bloggers -- it was the mainstream," said Julianne Dickson, 65, who owns an insurance agency and came from Lancaster, Pa., with two friends in hats, cropped pants and Hillary buttons. People they used to like -- such as Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann -- had spoken of Clinton in voices that fairly dripped with sarcasm. How could it not have hurt her?
"Doesn't she remind you of a wife telling you to take out the garbage?" they repeated with disgust, unable to recall which talking head had uttered it. (It was author Marc Rudov on a Fox News broadcast.)
Emotions were running high. Over the last 17 months, these women, who had once called their field of candidates an embarrassment of riches, had chosen one and fallen in love -- hard.
"I'm not sure I can vote for Obama," said Maria Diaz Vivian, 44, who owns a computer business in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was out of breath from climbing the long hill to the hotel's Starbucks for an iced chai tea, only to be turned away because she didn't have a credential that would get her past security.
That's the kind of day it was.
"I'm tired of the treatment Hillary's been getting. We go to other countries to monitor elections, but in our country, the votes in two states don't count?"
She was also mad at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the San Francisco Democrat whom she suspects is an Obama supporter, for not speaking out against the misogyny she thinks Clinton has suffered. It felt as though women were letting down women.
"What will I tell my daughter?" she asked, beads of sweat from the Washington humidity trickling down her face -- colliding with a couple of tears.