Fighting to the Big Sky Finish

By Beacon Staff

The morning after Sen. Hillary Clinton trounced Sen. Barack Obama in the West Virginia primary, and Bill Clinton stumped for his wife from the back of a truck in Kalispell, the spin rooms of the two campaigns revved up as the finish line of the June 3 Montana primary draws closer.

The remaining weeks of the Democratic primary calendar leave the party in a kind of limbo. As of this writing Clinton was expected to win the May 20 Kentucky primary handily and Obama should have notched another big win in Oregon on the same day. Superdelegates and big endorsements, like John Edwards, continue to trickle Obama’s way. Some reports say Obama will declare himself the presumptive nominee after the Oregon and Kentucky primaries while Clinton will contest his claim and continue on through June 3. Former Pres. Clinton’s May 13 visit to Montana, and Obama’s speeches here Monday indicate both candidates will fight to the bitter end.

A May 19 press release by Howard Wolfson, Clinton’s communications director, sought to head off any victory declaration by Obama after Oregon, calling such a move a “slap in the face” to voters in remaining battleground states and Clinton supporters.

“Premature victory laps and false declarations of victory are unwarranted,” Wolfson said. “Declaring mission accomplished does not make it so.”

In a conference call with reporters last week after the West Virginia contest, Clinton Campaign Chairman Terry McAuliffe said he planned to travel to Montana to build on the victory.

“I think you’re going to see similar in Kentucky, and Puerto Rico,” McAuliffe predicted. “The momentum you saw last night will continue on for the next three weeks.”

Wolfson made clear the campaign’s hopes for winning the nomination rest on the decision of a May 31 Democratic Party rules committee meeting to determine how to seat Michigan and Florida’s 366 delegates. If the delegates from those states are distributed by how they voted, and the popular votes in those states are considered, Wolfson said Clinton would lead Obama slightly in the popular vote and could edge him out in delegates.

“We’re going to continue to argue that Florida and Michigan ought to be seated,” Wolfson said. “We believe the party, because it’s the right thing to do and it’s the politically wise thing to do, will seat those delegates.”

Michigan and Florida lost their delegates to the Democratic nominating convention by moving their primaries up to January against party rules. Clinton won both states, though no candidate campaigned there and Obama’s name was not on the Michigan ballots. Clinton seeks full reinstatement of those delegates, but it’s unclear if many members of the rules committee agree with her best-case scenario.

The Obama campaign, while agreeing that Michigan and Florida should have some representation at the convention, disagrees with Clinton over the proportion of that representation. The day after the Clinton conference call, Western Obama supporters held their own call to argue for Obama’s resonance with Western voters, and to dispute any math by the Clinton campaign that puts her delegate count ahead of his.

DNC Committeewoman and superdelegate Jean Lemire Dahlman of Rosebud County called her southeastern corner of the state – with farms, ranches, coalmines and the Northern Cheyenne reservation – a microcosm for all of Montana.

“My sense is that Barack Obama has the greatest and the widest appeal to all these groups of people in Rosebud County,” Dahlman said. “It appears to be his time and place in history.”

Former Colorado Governor and former DNC Chairman Roy Romer criticized the Clinton campaign’s contention that, without the Michigan and Florida delegations seated, Obama’s nomination would somehow be tainted.

“Even as close as I am to politics, this goalpost-moving confuses me,” Romer said. “The party has got to maintain some discipline about its own rules. You just can’t allow every state to go set its primary date. It has to have some consequences for states that violate that rule.”

Romer added that Obama’s roughly 170-delegate lead over Clinton would not be closed by splitting the Florida and Michigan delegations, or even giving a majority of the delegates to Clinton.

“It just isn’t in the cards that she can close that 170 gap,” Romer said.

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