WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton supporters are gathering for what could be her last big stand Saturday, as the Democratic Party's rules committee meets to decide how to resolve a dispute over Florida's and Michigan's 368 delegates to the Democratic National Convention.
With only three primaries remaining, in Puerto Rico on Sunday and Montana and South Dakota next Tuesday, the Saturday meeting could be Clinton's final major effort to overtake Obama. She needs a big victory from the 30-member panel, which is expected to meet all day, and her supporters plan a rally to help press her case.
The math and the process confronting the rules committee are complex, but it boils down to this:
Obama now has 1,984 delegates, and Clinton has 1,782. Currently, a total of 2,026 is needed to win, but that number will change depending on how many Florida and Michigan delegates are seated.
The committee will grapple with two issues Saturday. One is whether to seat the two delegations at all. Michigan and Florida held their primaries in January, defying party rules, and were stripped of all their 368 convention delegates.
A memo from party legal advisers this week said the committee could seat no more than half the delegations — keeping out the rest would be the states' punishment.
The committee also is expected to deal with the question of who gets whatever delegates are seated. In Michigan, Obama and virtually every other major contender — except Clinton — took their names off the ballot. Obama and Clinton pledged not to campaign in Florida.
Clinton won Michigan with 55 percent of the vote. "Uncommitted" got 40 percent, a vote widely seen as a vote for Obama.
In Florida, Clinton took 50 percent, Obama trailed with 33 percent and 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards, who's since endorsed Obama, got 14 percent.
Florida Democrats are pushing a plan to split the delegation's votes 50-50 between Clinton and Obama.
Michigan's case is more complicated. Clinton argues that the full delegation should be seated, and she should get 73 delegates, "uncommitted" 55 and Obama none.
Signals, however, suggest that she's unlikely to prevail.
A four-member group of state Democratic bigwigs, including Sen. Carl Levin, is pushing a plan to give Clinton 69 delegates and Obama 59, and people who serve on the Rules and Bylaws Committee generally aren't rabid partisans. They tend to be insiders who want the party to prosper — hardly the kind of politicians who're likely to tie the institution in procedural knots that could jeopardize its chances of winning in November.
"Everyone on that committee has a real institutional concern for the Democratic Party," said committee member Donald Fowler, a Clinton backer and former party chairman.
"We're not the Supreme Court. We're a political organization," said Allan Katz, a Tallahassee city official who backs Obama.
Another possible sign that passions may be cooling: Harold Ickes, a committee member, top Clinton adviser and noted hardball player, Friday wouldn't say whether her team would appeal a decision that didn't go its way to the credentials committee at the Democratic convention in late August.
"We think it's not useful to cross streams before we come to them," he said.
Party officials and challengers will make presentations first Saturday, and the campaigns will then make their cases. Former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard and Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa civil rights activist, will present Clinton's case, while Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., and former Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich., will argue Obama's side. Levin is also expected to speak.
Mark Bubriski, a spokesman for the Florida party, said that while Democrats there want all delegates seated, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who'll present the state's case, is expected to use a conciliatory tone.
According to Bubriski, Nelson is likely to argue, "We want this to be over. Our goal is that this is the day to end it, to move on, to put this entire dark chapter behind us."
After hearing the arguments, the committee plans to break for a private lunch, followed by an afternoon of deliberations. Handicapping the committee is tough — it has an estimated 13 Clinton backers, eight Obama supporters and the rest, including the two co-chairmen, are believed to be uncommitted. A majority of those voting is needed to pass a measure.
A coalition of activist groups said it'll bring in busloads of Clinton backers from around the country. A rally near the Washington hotel hosting the meeting is expected to feature Kim Gandy, the president of the National Organization for Women; Elizabeth Bagley, a former senior adviser to former secretary of state Madeleine Albright; and Brent Wilkes, the executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
Among those who plan to protest is Millie Herrera, a potential Clinton convention delegate and the president of the Hispanic Democratic Caucus of Florida.
"When I vote, I cast one vote," she said. "It's not 50 percent or 80 percent. I don't think the votes, or the voters, should be discounted."
Obama's camp is urging its supporters to keep quiet.
"Senator Obama has held the moral high ground on this issue," said campaign adviser David Wilhelm. "We're not going to turn this thing into a circus. We seek a fair resolution. We want the delegates seated. We're willing to compromise."