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With the two Democratic presidential candidates in near-deadlock and battling for every delegate, party leaders and the rival campaigns started searching in earnest on Thursday for a way to seat delegations from Florida and Michigan. But they remained deeply divided over how to do so.

After weeks in which the issue hovered in the background, it shot to the forefront of the Democratic race as it became apparent that the delegates at stake could be vital in influencing whether Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton wins the nomination.

Clinton won the most votes in primaries held in Florida and Michigan in January. But the states held their contests earlier than allowed by the Democratic National Committee’s rules, leading the party to strip them of their delegates to the nominating convention. Neither candidate campaigned actively in the two states, and Obama was not on the ballot in Michigan.

Obama has maintained a slim but steady lead over Clinton in delegates awarded by voting in the primaries and caucuses of other states. The Clinton campaign is hoping she can translate her advantage in the popular vote in Florida and Michigan into a big share of their combined 367 delegates.

The fate of those disputed delegates has emerged as a battleground between them that could be as important as their next big primary battle, in Pennsylvania in April. But though the states, the party and the candidates have all suggested that they have no choice but to find a solution and that they are open to another round of voting, much remains to be settled, including what kind of contests to hold, when to hold them, how to allocate the delegates and, critically, who picks up the multimillion-dollar tab in each state.

“I’ll leave it up to the Democratic National Committee to make a decision about how to resolve it,” Obama told ABC News on Thursday night. “But I certainly want to make sure that we’ve got Michigan and Florida delegates at the convention in some fashion.”

The campaigns are not negotiating with each other, but are talking through surrogates and party leaders about a variety of options.

Aides to Clinton, brimming with confidence after primary victories in Ohio and Texas this week, signaled that they were open to a re-vote under certain conditions. Aides to Obama were a bit warier, sensing that the recent change in the electoral and psychological dynamic could work against him in any new election in those two states, Democrats said.

In the contests in January, Clinton prevailed in Florida by 50 to 33 percent over Obama. In Michigan, where Obama’s name was not on the ballot, Clinton took 55 percent of the vote while “uncommitted” won 40 percent.

“We haven’t ruled out rerunning these contests,” said Harold Ickes, a top adviser to Clinton and her chief delegate hunter. “We’ve said we think it should be settled. We believe some configuration could be devised that each party is not happy with but each party is willing to accept.”

Even if Florida and Michigan conduct new elections, it is unlikely that either candidate will have enough pledged delegates to win the nomination outright, advisers to both campaigns say. But their relative strength in pledged delegates could affect their ability to attract support from superdelegates.