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Some say Clinton visit is to stop delegate defection

BISMARCK -- Sen. Hillary Clinton's decision to speak in Grand Forks Friday, within hours of rival Sen. Barack Obama's address to North Dakota Democrats, may lie with the party's non-binding Feb. 5 caucus results, some Democrats say.

Or, it could just be that she's pleasing her supporters, who have been asking her to come here "for weeks and weeks and weeks," another said.

Or, maybe it has more to do with both realizing they reach thousands of Democrats in three states in a little more than 24 hours in a swing through the Dakotas and its western neighbor, said North Dakota Democrats' executive director.

In any case, Clinton and Obama are still locked in battle for every single delegate they can still grab, with Obama ahead and Clinton resisting calls that she should quit.

Tracy Potter, a Bismarck state senator, thinks Clinton is coming to keep a grip on the five delegates she won in the state Democrats' presidential preference caucus. Obama won eight of the 13.

"It makes the most sense to me, that she is competing for delegates," he said.

According to Democrats' rules, North Dakota's Feb. 5 caucus results are "instructive," not binding, though rules also say delegates to the Democratic National Convention are expected to "in a good conscience" vote to reflect the caucus outcome.

When the state convention delegates organize into caucuses--a process used at every convention since 1972--they can organize by candidate, by issues or by affinity. Typical caucuses at past conventions include labor and education; party Executive Director Jamie Selzler said he expects an Obama caucus and a Clinton caucus to form, among others.

Dominant caucuses formed at the convention can then sway who is selected as delegates to the national convention and who they'll vote for there, should the party's nominee still be unsettled.

The timing of the two candidates' speeches comes in the middle of the caucusing process, Selzler said.

On Friday afternoon, delegates will take part in an anonymous caucus straw poll to test the relative strength of proposed caucuses. Any proposed caucus that doesn't poll at least 15 percent will be considered non-viable and its would-be members will have to look for another one to join.

Then the convention will recess to hear Obama's 5:30 p.m. keynote and Clinton's 8 p.m. speech. And on Saturday morning, delegates will organize caucuses using signed ballots.

"The campaigns take this process very seriously," Selzler said. "I think (Clinton) is coming partially this week to make sure her supporters stay strong."

North Dakota has 21 delegates to the national convention - the 13 at stake on Feb. 5, seven superdelegates not bound by the February results (party officials and the congressional delegation), and one more unpledged superdelegate who will be picked by those attending this weekend's convention.

Six of North Dakota's superdelegates have said they back Obama. The only one who hasn't said is party Chairman David Strauss.

But Clinton supporter Nancy Vogeltanz-Holm of Grand Forks says people need no more speculate about why Clinton is coming than why Obama is coming.

"I'm not sure why it's a different question than for Obama. We've been asking for this (visit) for weeks and weeks and weeks," she said. "We're just absolutely thrilled."

North Dakota Obama adviser Dan Hannaher of Fargo dismisses the idea that five North Dakota Democrats might go to the national convention and ignore direction to vote "in all good conscience" for Clinton.

He said he's "not going to try to understand the strategy of the Hillary Clinton campaign. They seem to have a new strategy every week."

Selzler said the South Dakota Democratic Party's state convention is also this weekend and both candidates are set to speak there as well. Montana Democrats are having their Mansfield-Metcalf Dinner in Butte on Saturday night, with both Obama and Clinton also speaking there.

"It's true: Butte to be center of political world!" crows the Montana Democrats' Web site.

South Dakota and Montana are the last two states to hold Democratic primaries, on June 3.

Janell Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Dickinson Press.