Democratic officials reached a compromise in Washington on Saturday to seat the disputed Michigan and Florida delegations at reduced strength, sparking ire from Hillary Clinton’s campaign and threats to press the issue to the party’s convention in August.

The states were penalised for moving forward the date of their primaries but the nullified votes have since taken on a crucial importance as Barack Obama and Mrs Clinton battle it out for the nomination.

Howard Dean, the Democratic National Committee chairman, said that he predicted “a very spirited discussion”.

Before the Rules and Bylaws committee, a panel of 30 officials from across the country, began wading through arguments on Saturday morning, representatives were forced to run a vociferous gauntlet through hundreds of Clinton supporters, many of whom had been bussed in for the meeting.

The restive, mostly female crowd that gathered in the early morning sunshine outside a hotel near Washington Zoo on Saturday were not about to let slip their opportunity to convince wavering committee members that their votes should count.

The enthusiastic demonstrators whistled and hollered ”50 states not 48!” at each passing vehicle, no doubt hopeful that one of the committee’s members was inside.

T-shirts, badges and homemade banners some emblazoned with Mrs Clinton’s image were omnipresent, a reminder that the New York senator’s hopes of staying in the race could hinge on the committee’s decision.

”It might be our last fight,” said Brenda Fuller, from Ocala, Florida, whose vote in the state primary on January 29 was nullified. ”I sure didn’t feel good about that. I expected my vote to count. The voters had nothing to do with the changing of the [primary] date.”

Some of those in the crowd said they expected some form of compromise, with a decision to award only half the delegates or voting rights seen as a strong possibility.

But many said they would not settle for anything less than full representation. One banner held aloft outside the hotel read: ”I am not a half voter”.

Until last year Denise King, a maths teacher from upstate New York, was a member of the Rules and Bylaws committee and she said she was disappointed not be inside on Saturday. ”I think they are going to make some kind of change but I don’t think it’s going to be one that satisfies people,” she said. ”[Obama] should have agreed to have a revote in both states.”

Several protesters said that they would switch their votes to John McCain if Mrs Clinton failed to capture the Democratic nomination.

”This party will not heal. Hillary supporters are not going to support Obama,” said Sandy Lamanna, a university professor in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Lisa Martin, an educational researcher from Washington DC agreed. ”Obama claims to be the great uniter but he’s actually ended up the great divider. I will absolutely vote for John McCain [if Hillary loses], you don’t question his patriotism.”

Others said that once the heat of the moment had passed most of Mrs Clinton’s supporters would rally round Mr Obama if he became the Democratic presidential candidate.

”There are a lot of angry women here but a lot can go on between now and November,” Trudy Mason, a member of the New York state democratic committee, said.

The Obama campaign discouraged its supporters from attending the rally but some turned up regardless.

Ignoring a gaggle of ardent Clinton supporters, Don Squires, from Washington DC, held up a banner laden with undisguised sarcasm. It read; ”Change the rules until I win, it’s only fair.”

He said: ”Hillary’s campaign reminds me of the definition of chutzpah – the boy who kills both his parents and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.”

His son, Scott, holding up his own ironic placard, said he voted for the first time in Michigan but he was disappointed not to find Mr Obama’s name on the ballot.

”If you were an Obama supporter the only choice was to vote ’uncommitted’. It doesn’t seem fair.”

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