WASHINGTON -- Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean has a plan that will produce a nominee before his party's convention in August, avoiding what he fears could be a "really ugly and nasty" fiasco.
Democratic leaders have begun complaining that he has bungled the party's nominating process and alienated voters because of his failure to engineer a political compromise in the DNC's ill-advised decision to strip Florida and Michigan of all its delegates. But Dean, whose internal polls show the party's internecine warfare is hurting its chances in November, has been talking to party bigwigs about a deal and now says the delegations will be seated before the nominating roll of the states is called.
The conventional wisdom says the battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will go all the way to the August convention. But Dean wants it over well before then, and possibly before the last of the 10 remaining primaries are completed in June. And the likelihood is that's what will happen.
The scenario Dean and party leaders fear most is a bitter political floor fight in Denver that will deeply divide the party and send a message to the country that if the Democrats can't govern themselves, how can they govern the country?
"There'll be some nasty fights if it goes to convention, and people will walk out," Dean told the Associated Press last week in an unusually blunt interview in which he said the candidates' bitter infighting threatened to demoralize the party's base and weaken its chances in November.
Dean's stern admonition to both candidates to stop the attacks on one another, telling their supporters to "keep their mouths shut," got a lot of media attention. His plan to bring the nominating fight to an end, possibly before June, received little notice.
That plan calls on the remaining 350 undeclared superdelegates to break their neutrality sooner rather than later, providing enough votes to produce the 2,024-delegate majority needed to clinch the nomination.
"There is no point in waiting," Dean said, adding that he has been "talking to a fairly significant number of, by and large, nonaligned people about how we might resolve this."
Indeed, neutral superdelegates (governors, members of Congress, DNC members and other VIPs) have begun to break their silence in the past two weeks, all of them supporting Obama: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
So far, the delegate math favors Obama. Turning the corner into this week, he had 1,631 pledged delegates to Clinton's 1,501. Even if Clinton were to win a majority of popular votes in most the remaining primaries, she still would not pass him, because the party's proportional delegate award system effectively preserves Obama's lead.
The deceptive nature of the system at its very worst was seen in Texas where Clinton won the popular vote, yet Obama edged ahead of her in the state delegate count because of its Byzantine system of separate caucuses that gave him four more delegates than she received.
She will likely win in Pennsylvania, but Obama will take Indiana and North Carolina and probably most of the smaller Western states to come.
Dean is hoping that the rest of the superdelegates will follow his advice and declare their votes during the coming weeks and effectively end the race. If Obama's lead holds, as is likely, he will be close to 2,000 delegates, allowing the superdelegates to put him over the top.
As for Florida and Michigan, Dean is making it clear to party leaders that once the nomination race is all but over, there will be an agreement to seat both delegations under a proportional formula still to be worked out.
But neither campaign is ready to compromise at this point. "Let me just say that the campaigns believe that kind of deal is premature right now," Dean said.
Across the aisle, John McCain has been effectively reaching out to the GOP's base to unite his party and building an organization for the general election. He has put Lew Eisenberg, former partner at Wall Street investment bank Goldman Sachs, in charge of fund-raising. Insiders told me that campaign contributions have risen significantly.
He has also hired former RNC political director Mike DuHaime, who ran Rudy Giuliani's presidential bid. A veteran strategist who oversaw the voter-turnout apparatus that re-elected President Bush, DuHaime will help build the RNC's campaign operation.
It may take months before the Democrats entirely get their act together, and how unified it will be remains a huge question. In the meantime, McCain is already running his campaign, airing TV ads, staffing state and regional operations, and sharpening issues that the GOP believes will defeat a divided and dispirited opposition.