At first glance, Hillary Rodham Clinton should easily win Michigan’s Democratic primary, since no other top candidates are on the ballot.

But she faces an unusual opponent: “Uncommitted.”

If enough backers of the candidates who aren’t on the ballot – Barack Obama, John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Joe Biden – mark “Uncommitted” when they vote Jan. 15, it could take some of the luster off what’s otherwise a certain Clinton victory.

“We will see if over the next two or three weeks the people who aren’t on the ballot … urge everyone to vote ‘Uncommitted.’ I think that’s an intriguing prospect,” said Democratic activist Bob Alexander of East Lansing. “It would get a lot of national attention.”

Despite last-ditch legislative efforts to put the four missing Democrats back on the ballot, it’s now clear Clinton will be up against only Dennis Kucinich, Chris Dodd and Mike Gravel.

A poll conducted earlier this month by Lansing-based EPIC-MRA showed 49 percent of likely Democratic voters back Clinton. But 18 percent support Obama, 15 percent prefer Edwards and 12 percent are undecided, leaving a potentially large pool of uncommitted voters who could muddy the perception of a Clinton victory.

Under Alexander’s scenario, backers of Obama, Edwards, Richardson and Biden would get some of the uncommitted slots when Democrats hold district conventions in late March to choose 83 of their 156 national convention delegates.

He hopes a few might even go to Al Gore supporters, even though Gore isn’t running and Alexander was unsuccessful in getting him on the Michigan ballot.

But seats will be set aside for uncommitted delegates at district conventions only if at least 15 percent of the Democratic primary voters voting in that congressional district chose “Uncommitted,” or at least 15 percent of the statewide Democratic vote.

Michigan AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney, who likes Edwards although his union hasn’t endorsed a candidate, said that will be a tough threshold to reach.

“It would be easier for a group of Democrats … to come together to vote in the Republican primary than it would to make enough of a difference in the Democratic primary by voting for a write-in candidate or voting ‘Uncommitted,'” he said. He noted that Democrats crossed over to help Republicans John McCain in 2000 and Pat Buchanan in 1996.

If backers of Obama, Edwards, Richardson and Biden did write in their favorites’ names, those votes probably wouldn’t be counted, said Michigan Democratic Party spokesman Jason Moon.

The four withdrew their names from the Michigan ballot to satisfy Iowa and New Hampshire, which were unhappy Michigan was challenging their leadoff status on the primary calendar. They’d have to file paperwork with state elections officials by Jan. 4 saying they wanted the write-in votes counted, something that would go against their reasons for withdrawing in the first place.

“We do not want people to write in candidates,” Moon said. “If the candidates live up to their pledge, those votes would be wasted.”

The Republican ballot also will allow voters to choose “Uncommitted.” But with all eight GOP candidates on the ballot, it’s unlikely many voters will pick that option.

If enough Michigan Democrats vote “Uncommitted,” it could slow some of Clinton’s momentum if she does well in the earlier Iowa and New Hampshire presidential contests. If she has done poorly until that point, the disaffection with her candidacy shown by uncommitted Michigan Democratic voters could harm her even further.

So far, the Clinton campaign doesn’t seem too worried. A spokesman declined to comment on the possibility of “Uncommitted” doing well.

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