WASHINGTON (AP) — After more than a decade as the ultimate Democratic Party insider, Hillary Rodham Clinton finds herself in a strange place: on the outside looking in, beseeching party leaders to help keep her White House bid alive.
In campaign appearances through South Florida, Clinton called out her own party’s leadership, urging them to restore national convention delegates to Florida and Michigan. These delegates were stripped from the two states for jumping ahead in the line of primaries in violation of party rules that all the candidates, including Clinton, agreed to before she won the two January contests.
“We're asking the Democratic National Committee to make sure they count all of your votes,” she said at a Miami rally Wednesday night.
In years past, the Clintons didn't have to ask the Democratic National Committee (DNC) for anything; they just told the committee what to do.
Her husband, after all, was the president. She worked in the White House. Her current campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe, is an old Clinton friend and fundraiser who once ran the DNC.
Now, her campaign is pushing party leaders to fully count the delegates for the two disputed states, even though none of the candidates campaigned in the two states because of the rules violation and Obama even had his name taken off the Michigan ballot. Seating both groups in the way most favorable to her would still leave her trailing Barack Obama in the delegate count.
With every step Obama takes closer to the nomination, Clinton fades a little farther from the spotlight.
Seeking to reverse that, she has embraced the rhetoric of an outsider, calling for Florida and Michigan delegates to be counted, not for her sake she says, but for democracy. Her spokesman Howard Wolfson claimed recently that what's at stake is the “bedrock principle” of free government.
Clinton repeatedly compared the current situation of unseated delegates to the 2000 recount in Florida which was ended by the Supreme Court, giving George W. Bush the presidency.
“It is time for the Democratic Party to honor one of our core values, namely that we are the party that supports democracy,” Clinton said.
William Daley, who chaired Gore's 2000 campaign and now is a top adviser to Obama, said Clinton's comparison does not make sense.
“I just don't get it. There's no analogy whatsoever here, zero,” Daley said. “I think when you start making extreme statements like that, one's credibility isn't enhanced, it's lessened.”
Daley said every politician likes to assume the role of the outsider, but in Clinton's case, it just doesn't fit well.
Bill and Hillary Clinton “have been the paramount force within the Democratic Party, and most of the people that voted for (punishing Florida and Michigan) were Clinton people, because there wasn't such a thing as Obama people in the establishment then.”
One very prominent Clinton supporter, New York Gov. David Paterson, said he doesn't agree with her comparisons between civil rights fights and Clinton's attempt to count Michigan and
Florida votes, and hopes she ends that effort.
“I would say at this point we're starting to see a little desperation on the part of a woman I still support and will support until she makes a different determination,” Paterson told WAMC-FM in Albany, New York. “Candidates have to be cautious in their zeal to win that they don't trample on the process.”
Many Clinton supporters see it differently, and voice their frustration in blunt terms.
Florida congresswoman Corrine Brown introduced Clinton to the Florida crowds by demanding that DNC Chairman Howard Dean and “the party bosses” seat the delegates.
“In 2000 we had a coup d’etat, you know, the Republicans stole our votes,” Brown said. “Now this is 2008, Howard Dean and the Democratic leaders, count our votes in Florida!”
She even urged the crowd to take buses to Washington for the May 31 meeting of the DNC's rules committee, which is expected to reach a decision about the two state delegations.
Frustrated Clinton voters seemed receptive to the call. At the Miami rally, one held a sign declaring: “Not counting votes: It’s a Republican thing, not a Democratic thing.”
DNC spokeswoman Stacie Paxton said they expect hundreds of people to show up at the Washington area hotel for the committee meeting, but said she had no specific knowledge of planned protests or demonstrations.
“We're expecting there will be a significant interest and public attendance,” said Paxton.
Demanding more consideration from party bosses is a far cry from where the Clintons expected to be at this stage of the race. Last year, the former first lady seemed almost certain to capture the nomination. But for all their past electoral successes, the two have had a complicated history with party leadership.
In Bill Clinton's first term, he practiced the political art of “triangulation,” finding a middle ground between the left and the right and claiming it as his own. Many in the party felt that strategy left congressional Democrats badly exposed, leading to the Republican takeover of the House in 1994.
The Clintons aren't alone in coming to terms with the role reversal. The current head of the DNC, Howard Dean, became a national figure in 2004 as he campaigned for president claiming to represent “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” He stormed the early primaries but imploded and ended up with a key party position instead.
Now, the former outsider Dean must decide what to do about the new outsider Clinton, and do it in a way that doesn't leave their party locked out of the White House for another four years.
That, Clinton aides argued recently, is the whole point: if Democrats spite Michigan and Florida now, it will come back to bite them.
If the delegations are not seated at the convention, Wolfson said, “it will harm the chances of a Democrat to win in those states in November.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: Associated Press Writer Devlin Barrett has covered New York politics for five years.