WASHINGTON — Democrats could be heading for a bitter showdown in Michigan between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and it's unclear who'd have an advantage there or how anyone would vote.
Some 600,000 people voted in Michigan's primary Jan. 15, but the national party refuses to recognize the result because it didn't follow party rules. Clinton won that contest, but Obama didn't compete and wasn't even on the ballot.
Now state officials are considering whether to have a revote later this spring, possibly in a caucus or "firehouse primary," although the state government and the national Democratic Party say they won't pay for it, which only adds to the confusion.
"Probably the most sensible thing to do is split the delegates 50-50 and make the (January) results irrelevant," said Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson, an associate professor of political science at Wayne State University in Detroit.
But things aren't that simple. One reason is that the primary was scarred by racial controversy.
Black voters were particularly frustrated on primary day. Not only were many offended that the national party was saying their votes didn't matter at a time when Obama was making a serious bid for the presidency, but they also felt disenfranchised on the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
At the urging of local black leaders, about 70 percent of African-American voters voted "uncommitted."
Clinton, the only major candidate on the ballot, won with 55 percent.
Exit polls asked people whom they'd pick if all the Democrats then in the race were on the ballot, and 35 percent said Obama. Another 12 percent went for former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Their combined vote was slightly more than the 46 percent that Clinton got in this all-candidates-included option.
If Michigan votes again, "black voters would probably come out in droves," veteran state Democratic activist Leo Lalonde said.
Florida also broke party rules by holding its primary in January. No candidates campaigned there, but Clinton won, only to see the Democratic National Committee outlaw the state's delegates.
The significance of both states has heightened as the delegate race remains close and neither Clinton nor Obama is likely to secure the 2,025 needed to win the nomination.
The latest Associated Press count gives Obama 1,569 delegates to Clinton's 1,462. Michigan has 156 delegates at stake.
Bill Ballenger, the editor of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics, reports some sentiment against any kind of revote, since the state's January primary cost an estimated $10 million to $12 million and Clinton supporters contend that she's already won.
"To say none of that counts creates real problems," he said.
Some Michigan officials are pushing caucuses, which cost less than a primary. But caucuses tend to attract fewer voters, because they last only a few hours and require voters to state their preferences openly.
Other alternatives including selecting delegates at a nominating convention or apportioning delegates based on the January results, a likely net gain of 18 for Clinton if Obama got the uncommitted share.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm has discussed holding a "firehouse primary," probably on a Saturday in June, though the Obama camp reportedly is lukewarm to the idea. The party, not the state, would run the event, open only to Democrats. Voting would take place largely in neighborhood fire stations, and polls probably would be open less than the usual 13 hours to save money.
Granholm wants the Democratic National Committee to pick up the tab for any redo. DNC Chairman Howard Dean says no; Michigan violated party rules, so it's up to the state to fix it. DNC money must be used for the fall campaign against Republicans, he says.
Clinton's said she'll wait and see what redo options emerge. Obama's said the DNC should decide. Both insist that Michigan and Florida be represented at the convention.
A Michigan group of congressional, party and labor officials who aren't committed to any candidate was created this week to seek a resolution. No consensus has emerged.
Douglas Koopman, a professor of political science at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., said the key to winning a Michigan revote would rest with African-Americans, union members and young voters.
Union members tend to lean to Clinton, though not by much. People from union households make up about half the Democratic electorate in the state. In January, they gave Clinton 56 percent of their vote.
Young voters, on the other hand, were strong in the "uncommitted" column. Eighteen- to 29-year-olds preferred "uncommitted" over Clinton by 5 percentage points.
Obama could lose votes if Michigan holds its revote in late spring. "You'd be getting into exam week or colleges could be out for the semester," Koopman said.
ON THE WEB
The January Michigan exit polls: http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2008/primaries/results/epolls/#MIDEM