A Delegate Loophole?

Citing wiggle room in an obscure, 26-year-old Democratic Party rule, Hillary Clinton's campaign is leaving the door open to the idea of attempting to persuade Barack Obama's pledged delegates to switch their votes at the last minute and back the New York senator—despite fears among some party officials that it could throw this summer's Denver convention into chaos.

The question of whether pledged delegates must stick to the candidate they were elected to vote for has prompted party chatter for weeks. Clinton herself drew notice last week during a NEWSWEEK interview when she said her delegate numbers aren't "bleak at all," even though by most counts she trails Obama by more than 100. "Even elected and caucus delegates are not required to stay with whomever they are pledged to," she added. Although her campaign quickly denied it was waging any effort to "flip" Obama's pledged delegates, Clinton's remarks weren't academic. After the 1980 battle between Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy, her chief strategist Harold Ickes noted, the party changed a rule that required pledged delegates to stick with their candidates no matter what. The current rule, adopted in 1982, states that pledged delegates "shall in all good conscience reflect the sentiments of those who elected them." A "good conscience" reason for a delegate to switch, Ickes told NEWSWEEK, would be if one candidate—such as, say, Clinton—was deemed more "electable." If delegates believe she has a better chance in November than Obama, Ickes said, "you bet" that would be a reason to change their vote. (He added, however, that the campaign is "focused" on winning over uncommitted superdelegates "at this point.")

Ickes's comments prompted a fierce comeback from Obama spokesman Bill Burton. "Despite repeated denials," he said, "the Clinton campaign finally admitted that they will go to any length to win." One party official, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive matters, said the strategy behind Clinton's invocation of the 1982 rule was clear: "They're trying to open up a window for some of the Obama people to change their minds."