WASHINGTON — The last Democratic presidential primaries take place Tuesday, but an obscure panel of 30 party insiders now finds itself in the strongest position to determine whether the long nominating process will come to a smooth conclusion.
Meeting at a Washington hotel Saturday, the party's Rules and Bylaws Committee will attempt to settle a lingering dispute about whether delegates from Michigan and Florida should be seated at the party's convention in August.
Both campaigns and thousands of voters have been lobbying the committee members, who are used to working in anonymity. E-mail messages are flooding in. The 500 tickets set aside for spectators were snapped up within three minutes on the Internet.
At stake are the 368 delegates from Michigan and Florida, who were disqualified because those states held their primaries in January, earlier than allowed by party rules. Under the outcome Hillary Rodham Clinton has called for in recent weeks, she would pick up 111 more delegates than Barack Obama. That would narrow his lead in the delegate count and might position Clinton to argue to the party's superdelegates that they should throw the nomination to her.
But there is little support on the committee for giving the New York senator everything she wants. That leaves the panel with a second challenge: bringing Clinton, Obama and Democratic officials together in an agreement that unites the party and keeps bruised feelings to a minimum.
Should Clinton or her supporters come away feeling she was treated unfairly, they may prolong their argument all the way to the convention and hesitate to get behind Obama if the Illinois senator becomes the nominee. That outcome would leave the party weakened in its general election battle against John McCain, the presumed Republican nominee.
Privately, aides to both Clinton and Obama say they prefer to see the issue settled this weekend.
A resolution would be "an important step toward our unity," said Alice Germond, secretary of the Democratic National Committee and a member of the rules panel. "We want ultimately to resolve it so we can stop talking about the process at the beginning of June and start talking about our nominee."
"We want this to be the final stop on this train," said a DNC official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We don't want to see this challenged again. That just extends the pain."
Committee members are receiving a level of attention they neither imagined nor particularly wanted. One, Garry Shay, a former chairman of the Los Angeles Democratic Party, said he was receiving as many as 500 e-mails a day, which he tries to read and answer. "It's horrible; it's horrible," he said.
Summarizing the correspondence, Shay said: "Some of it is very emotional. Some is very dry and rules-based. Some of it is short. Some is very long and detailed, and some is threatening, as in, 'I won't vote for the other guy.' "
Clinton loyalists are expected to demonstrate outside the hotel. The Obama campaign has urged its supporters to stand down. "We don't think it's a helpful dynamic to create chaos," said David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager. "In the interest of party unity, we're encouraging our supporters not to protest."
In advance of the meeting, national Democratic Party leaders have been trying to hash out a compromise with the Clinton and Obama campaigns and with representatives of Michigan and Florida.
Even Clinton supporters on the rules panel insist that some form of punishment is necessary for Michigan and Florida. The two states violated party rules by scheduling their primaries early, prompting the top Democratic candidates to avoid campaigning there. Obama and several others withdrew their names from the Michigan ballot; Clinton's name remained on the ballot.
One possible sanction would reduce the voting power of Michigan and Florida at the convention by giving their delegates half a vote each. That idea has gained support within the rules committee.
In their public postures, the Obama and Clinton campaigns are far apart. Clinton wants the delegates awarded in conformity with the January election results, which would give her 111 delegates more than Obama's take.
That outcome would still leave Clinton trailing Obama in the delegate count. She is currently behind by 201 delegates, with 1,981 for Obama and 1,780 for Clinton.
Clinton would not close the gap with Obama even if she got what she wanted from the rules committee and went on to perform spectacularly in the final primaries, in Puerto Rico on Sunday and in South Dakota and Montana on Tuesday. (A candidate needs 2,026 delegates to win the nomination, but that number would rise Saturday if the party agreed to count the Michigan and Florida results in some fashion.)
One Clinton supporter on the rules panel, who asked not to be named in order to be able to discuss the matter candidly, conceded that there was virtually no outcome in the committee that could lead to a Clinton victory.