Howard Dean

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Leaders of major women’s rights groups are banding together to push Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean to seat delegates from Michigan and Florida, a strategy that represents the last real hope for Sen. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women in Washington, D.C.; Ellie Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation in Arlington, Va.; and other prominent women’s rights leaders held a conference call Wednesday with Dean to encourage him to count votes from primaries in Michigan and Florida.

Karen Finney, a spokesperson for Dean, said he told participants he is seeking a solution that respects the voters of Michigan and Florida, the two remaining presidential candidates, and the 48 other states that did not break the party’s nominating rules.

“He would like to see a delegation from Florida and Michigan seated but doing that will require a compromise,” Finney said.

Delegates from Florida and Michigan are not allowed to cast votes for the party nominee at the convention because their state parties violated national party rules by scheduling primaries in January.

Clinton needs votes from her victories in those states to have any real hope of catching up with Sen. Barack Obama, who leads in delegates and superdelegates, those free to back the nominee of their choice regardless of the outcome of their state primaries.

Neither Clinton nor Obama campaigned in either state, although Clinton held three fundraisers in Florida shortly before the Jan. 29 primary there. Obama’s name did not appear on the Michigan ballot.

The women also pressed Dean to take a stronger stand against calls from elected officials on Clinton to drop out of the nomination battle and against sexist treatment of her in the media, said Clare Giesen, executive director of the National Women’s Political Caucus, who participated in the conference call.

Candidate’s Prerogative

“He has been very consistent in saying he is not going to tell either candidate to drop out,” Finney said, noting that Dean sought the presidency in 2004 and has a “personal perspective” on the matter. “That’s the decision a candidate has to make on their own,” Finney said.

Other participants in the Wednesday teleconference included Dr. Susan Wood, the former director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Office on Women’s Health who resigned in 2005 to protest delays in granting emergency contraceptives over-the-counter status; Dr. Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Research on Women and Families in Washington, D.C.; and the leaders of National Women’s Political Caucus and the Women’s Campaign Forum, two groups in Washington, D.C., dedicated to electing pro-choice women to political office.

In addition to offering political backing women are also continuing to pour money into Clinton’s campaign. Susie Tompkins Buell, a prominent Clinton donor, is a prime organizer along with other San Francisco donors of a political action committee, formed earlier this month, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The group, Women Count, has spent at least $140,000 in ads to count the Florida and Michigan races.

“We wanted for Howard Dean to take more of a leadership role during this primary, and especially now,” Giesen said. “Our position is that every vote should count.”

Some of Clinton’s strongest female supporters plan to echo the message in demonstrations on Saturday outside the site of the Democratic National Committee’s meeting in Washington, D.C., where committee members will decide whether to seat delegates from Michigan and Florida at the national convention in Denver this August.

‘Stop the Sexism’

The message of the protest–organized by Clinton Supporters Count Too, a group activated by Mary Kay cosmetics sales director Cynthia Ruccia of Columbus, Ohio–is “Stop the sexism. Hillary is the best candidate for president for all Americans, male and female.”

“We women are the biggest constituency of the party and we have been completely ignored,” Ruccia said in an interview earlier this month on Fox News. “Howard Dean and the rest of them have allowed an incredibly sexist campaign to be run, and they could have stood up and stopped it at any time. . . We have just hit the boiling point.”

If the Democratic National Committee decides against Clinton, she will likely come under heavy pressure to bow out and allow Democrats to unite around Obama, a scenario for which some women’s rights leaders and Clinton backers are already girding themselves.

“Probably I would support Obama, but I’m not making any decisions until she officially drops out,” said Martha Burk, author of “Your Money and Your Life: The High Stakes for Women Voters in ’08 and Beyond.” As former chair of the Washington-based National Council of Women’s Organizations, Burk led the campaign to open the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia to women.

But before she would throw her weight behind Obama, Burk–who worked for New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson before he bowed out of the Democratic race–said she and others should press Obama to make specific pledges on pay equity and other issues of concern to women.

Anti-Obama Sentiment

Others refuse to back Obama even if he becomes the nominee, a sentiment reflected in a March Gallup poll that showed that at least 28 percent of Clinton supporters would vote for McCain over Obama.

Marcia Pappas, president of the New York state chapter of the National Organization for Women, plans to write in Clinton’s name on the ballot if she isn’t the nominee. “To say that we are going to forgive and go to the polls and pretend that nothing like this happened. . . I’m sorry,” she said.

The idea of a combined dream team ticket uniting the two candidates has so far been limited to cryptic comments and unsubstantiated reports. Last week the New York Times ran a story of people anonymously tracking the idea back to Bill Clinton, but it was couched in official denials.

Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine, a national co-chair of the Obama campaign, is among those saying Clinton should drop out so Obama can focus on a general election race against Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee.

“I think we need to move to a position now where the campaign is between Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain and not have a side campaign between Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton,” Kaine told listeners of a radio call-in show in Virginia on Tuesday, according to the Washington Post.

Other prominent Democrats who have reportedly urged Clinton to get out of the race include Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, and Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who also ran for the party’s presidential nomination this year.

“We are tired of elected officials telling Hillary Clinton to step down and get out,” Giesen said. “That’s what people have been telling women for years.”

Clinton is expected to continue her campaign at least through June 3, when South Dakota and Montana hold the final Democratic primaries of the year. Puerto Rico holds its primary on June 1.

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

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