WASHINGTON (AP) _ With Barack Obama poised to win the Democratic presidential nomination in as little as a few days, the national party faces the daunting task this weekend of dealing with two states stripped of their delegates and avoiding a rift that could hurt the Democrats' chances in the general election.
The party's rules committee is meeting Saturday to decide how to divvy up Michigan and Florida delegates between Obama and rival Hillary Rodham Clinton. The states' primaries were not included in the overall delegate count because they defied the national party by holding their nominating contests earlier than scheduled.
Their decision is unlikely to fully satisfy anyone, but the party is seeking to avoid angering loyal Clinton supporters and alienating two states that could be crucial in the November election against Republican nominee-in-waiting John McCain.
Clinton has pressed for both states to be fully counted. While neither she nor Obama campaigned in either state _ and Obama was not even on the Michigan ballot _ Clinton won both contests. She has cited her victories there as part of her push to argue that she leads Obama in the popular vote counting selected contests, even if his all-important delegate lead is overwhelming.
Obama is willing to give Clinton the major share of the Michigan and Florida delegates, but is stopping short of her demand to fully recognize the results.
The former first lady's supporters plan to rally outside the Washington hotel where the meeting will be held, putting pressure on the national party amid fears that the already grueling nomination battle will split the party. Obama has discouraged a counter protest.
The first-term Illinois senator is within 42 delegates of the 2,026 needed to clinch the nomination, according to The Associated Press tally. He picked up two more delegates on Friday, and leads Clinton by 200 delegates.
The rules committee meeting comes a day before the two candidates head into the Clinton-favored Puerto Rico primary _ one of the three remaining nomination contests to be held in the next few days. Montana and South Dakota hold their races on Tuesday.
Obama stands to gain a minimum of roughly 20 delegates in the remaining primaries under party rules that distribute them in proportion to the popular vote _ even if he loses all three.
Meanwhile, Democratic leaders were urging uncommitted superdelegates _ the party leaders and others who may choose whomever they like _ to choose sides quickly so that there is not a fight at the August convention.
House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi already has begun contacting uncommitted House Democrats, urging them to weigh in soon after the primary season ends, party officials said. National party chairman Howard Dean also is pushing superdelegates to decide.
Clinton said she expected superdelegates to make their decisions next week. “I think that after the final primaries, people are going to start making up their minds. I think that is the natural progression that one would expect,'' she said in a conference call.
Clinton has said she would take her battle to the convention if she is not satisfied, a decision that would fly in the face of an increasing number of party leaders who say the contest needs to be wrapped up.
Asked if she now envisioned the race extending beyond Tuesday's final primaries, Clinton replied: “It could, I hope it doesn't. I hope it's resolved to everyone's satisfaction by that date, because that's what people are expecting, but we'll have to see what happens.''
On Friday, Obama and Clinton both focused on the primaries. Clinton was meeting with voters in Puerto Rico, and Obama _ who earlier in the week campaigned in western states that will be key in the general election _ was holding a rally in Montana.
Obama has increasingly focused his attacks on McCain, who secured the necessary delegates for the nomination weeks ago, arguing that the veteran Arizona senator offers little more than an extension of President George W. Bush's policies.
In eyeing the general election battle, he has also sought to mend fences with Clinton and her supporters. Obama looked to defuse the latest controversy involving a supporter _ this time a Catholic priest who delivered a sermon mocking the former first lady.
The Rev. Michael Pfleger also apologized for last Sunday's sermon at Obama's church, in which he said Clinton's eyes welled with tears before the New Hampshire primary because she felt “entitled'' to the Democratic nomination and because “there's a black man stealing my show.''
Race has been a constant undercurrent in the nomination battle this year _ Obama has been the strongest African-American contender for the U.S. presidency in history and would be the first black White House candidate of a major party if he wraps up the nomination as expected. Clinton was competing to be the first woman in that role.
Obama cut ties with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who was blasted for his sermons blaming U.S. policies for the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks and calls of “God damn America'' for its racism.
McCain rejected endorsements from two evangelicals. The Rev. John Hagee has been criticized as anti-Catholic, but McCain rejected his endorsement only after a Web site unearthed a sermon Hagee gave portraying Hitler as a tool God used to deliver Jews to the promised land. McCain disowned the Rev. Ron Parsley's endorsement after ABC News reported that he had called Islam an “anti-Christ'' religion.