WASHINGTON - Hillary Clinton's campaign tried again yesterday to persuade Democrats, especially those on the party's rules committee, that she's their strongest candidate this fall, while her rival Barack Obama talked compromise and calm.
Clinton's campaign sent a letter to the party's uncommitted superdelegates, who may have the final say on the nominee, telling them, "When you look at her wins in the important swing states and her strength against McCain in head-to-head matchups, there's no question that Hillary is the strongest candidate."
Obama backers scoffed at the notion that Clinton was ahead in the popular vote, or is a better general election candidate against Republican Sen. John McCain.
What's important, said Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, is to resolve a dispute over whether and how to seat convention delegates from Florida and Michigan and move on.
"The attention of voters," he said, "is quickly turning to the general election."
Clinton and Obama face four tests beginning Saturday: The rules committee, which will discuss and possibly decide the fate of the disputed convention delegations; Sunday's Puerto Rico primary and the season's last contests Tuesday in South Dakota and Montana.
Obama now has 1,981 delegates to Clinton's 1,779. A total of 2,026 is needed to win.
Obama is expected to top that number after Montana and South Dakota vote, but the Clinton camp says that if Florida and Michigan are included, the winner needs 2,210 delegates.
The New York senator is mobilizing for the Saturday rules test, when the Rules and Bylaws Committee will meet in Washington to discuss how to deal with the two disputed states.
Florida and Michigan defied party rules by holding their primaries in January.
Obama, like virtually every other major Democratic contender, took his name off the Michigan ballot, but Clinton didn't. Neither of them campaigned in Florida.
Clinton initially supported the party's decision to penalize the two states, but then she won them both, and now she's arguing that she's entitled to their delegates based on the popular vote. That could net her some 45 to 50 additional delegates.
Obama, realizing that a compromise could give him the delegates he needs to win, has softened his position lately, saying he's willing to split the Florida delegation 50-50 and is open to a Michigan compromise.
"We've been clear for some time we're open to some compromise that's fair," said Plouffe. "Any compromise could benefit Senator Clinton."
But Clinton's camp, which wants to seat no Obama delegates from Michigan, saw its opponent's stand as evidence that she deserves more consideration.
"Even Senator Obama now says the status quo is not acceptable," said Harold Ickes, a key Clinton adviser. "That we consider a considerable breakthrough."
Ickes said his camp would argue forcefully that "delegates in the states, the pledged delegates, should fairly reflect the will of the voters, the 2.3 million voters."
The rules committee is expected to hear the Florida challenge first, then Michigan's, on Saturday.
The 30-member panel includes 13 Clinton supporters, at least eight members loyal to Obama and others whose loyalties are uncertain.
A 38-page memo released yesterday by party legal advisers said the committee could seat half the Florida and Michigan delegations.
Some members are sympathetic to the idea, believing that while it would punish the states for violating party rules, it also would bring two crucial general election states back into the Democratic fold.
Protesters loyal to Clinton are expected to gather outside the meeting Saturday, but Obama's campaign is urging its backers to stay away.
"We are not encouraging our people to protest on Saturday," said Plouffe. "We don't think it's a helpful dynamic to create chaos."