Democratic Party chief Howard Dean said in an interview with CBS News' The Early Show that he wants all Democratic superdelegates to make their choice before July 1 to avoid a contested convention.
Superdelegates are the nearly 800 party and elected officials who can support whomever they choose at the Democratic National Convention, regardless of what happens in the primaries.
"There's 800 of them and 450 of them have already said who they're for," Dean told co-anchor Harry Smith. "I'd like the other 350 to say who they're on between now and the 1st of July so we don't have to take this into convention." (
Dean also tried to tone down the ill will that is growing among supporters of Sens.and .
"I think the candidates have got to understand that they have an obligation to our country to unify," he said. "Somebody's going to lose this race with 49.8% of the vote. And that person has got to pull their supporters in behind the nominee."
Dean also talked with The Associated Press, saying the charges and countercharges between Clinton and Obama have gotten too personal at times. He declined to say how they have crossed the line, but he said he's made it clear privately when it has happened.
"You do not want to demoralize the base of the Democratic Party by having the Democrats attack each other," he said Thursday during the interview in his office at Democratic National Committee headquarters. "Let the media and the Republicans and the talking heads on cable television attack and carry on, fulminate at the mouth. The supporters should keep their mouths shut about this stuff on both sides because that is harmful to the potential victory of a Democrat."
"Because in the end this is not about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, it's about our country," Dean said on the The Early Show. "I want to make sure this campaign stays on the high ground."
"There is no point in waiting," he said. The Democratic political organization "is as good or better as the Republicans', and we haven't been able to say that for about 30 years. But that all doesn't make any difference if people are really disenchanted or demoralized by a convention that's really ugly and nasty."
Dean, the former governor of Vermont and 2004 presidential candidate, said he knows his critics say he should take a bigger leadership role in resolving some of these disputes. But he said that's not his role. Rather, he thinks of himself as a referee who enforces the rules in a close basketball game.
"Somebody is going to lose," Dean said. "My job is to make sure the person who loses feels like they have been treated fairly so that their supporters will support the winner."
Dean said the massive numbers of people showing up to participate in Democratic nominating contests across the country gives him encouragement that the eventual nominee will be well positioned to win the White House.
He said it is good for the candidates to debate controversies like the incendiary sermons by Obama's pastor and Clinton's different accounts of danger on a trip to Bosnia as first lady. If Democrats didn't deal with them now, he said Republicans will surely make use of them in the fall.
Dean also reflected the concerns of many Democrats who worry about Obama and Clinton tearing each other down.
"What I don't want to do is have the Democrats make a stupid mistake in April and then be sorry they said that in October and end up with some more right-wing extremists on the Supreme Court," he said.
Dean's supporters say he's working behind the scenes to resolve some of the issues. He's been consulting with party stalwarts about how to wrap up the nomination quickly after the voting ends in June, including former Vice President Al Gore, former presidential candidate John Edwards, former Sen. George Mitchell, former president Jimmy Carter, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson and former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.
"There'll be some nasty fights if it goes to convention, and people will walk out," Dean said. "But I've also been talking to a fairly significant number of, by and large, nonaligned people about how we might resolve this."
Dean said he will not encourage any delegate to vote one way or another.
"I am going to stand up for the rules, and I know I'm doing the right thing most of the time because I've got both Clinton people and Obama people mad at me," he said.
For instance, while Obama's campaign has been encouraging superdelegates to support the candidate with the most pledged delegates - which almost certainly will be Obama - Dean says the rules don't require that and superdelegates are free to chose who they want.
On the other side, Clinton has been arguing lately that even pledged delegates - awarded to a candidate based on the outcome of state contests - aren't bound to vote for that candidate at the convention. Dean called that "a very technical argument."
"You aren't going to get pledged delegates to move unless something really shocking happens," he said. And he thinks it unlikely the superdelegates would support a candidate who did not have the most pledged delegates.
Dean also said the Michigan and Florida delegates will be seated at the convention. But he won't force a resolution because he said there's nothing the Obama and Clinton campaigns can support at this point.
"You bring both sides together and say, `Don't you think it's time that the two campaigns made a deal on how we're going to do this?"' Dean said. "Let me just say that the campaigns believe that kind of a deal is premature right now."