Unless Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama bows out of the nominating race, some political strategists believe it's mathematically impossible for either to secure the Democratic nomination without having to rely on the independent-minded superdelegates. Either that or wage a contentious fight to seat the so-called illegitimate delegates from two important swing states, Florida and Michigan.

To get as close as possible to achieving the magical number of 2,025 delegates needed to win the nomination, Clinton and Obama are aggressively courting superdelegates: national and state party leaders, current and retired high-ranking elected officials, union leaders and grassroots activists. Nevertheless, when all is said and done, Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean, like previous party chairs who watch from the sidelines during the primary, may have to wake up from his long winter nap and call to order the Convention Credentials Committee to decide the fate of the two disputed delegations.

Unless the Democrats have a strong nominee who can demonstrate that they won fair and respected the rules, what happens then will be nothing short of a civil war within the Democratic Party. And steps must be taken now to avoid that type of internal bloodletting.

In 2004, the District of Columbia City Council, daring the Democratic Party to further disenfranchise tax-paying residents who lack voting rights in the U.S. Congress, voted to hold the first primary election in the country. What happened then is relevant to what's happening now.

First, since most of you already know that I'm a superdelegate, let me also confess that I reside in the District of Columbia and serve as an at-large member of the party. (Go ahead and laugh. I am still a party hack and enjoy wearing my donkey lapel pin.) Anyway, after all the back and forth, which included threats from local activists and heated calls for me to get out of the way, I decided not to confront the city council, the equivalent of a state legislature.

Instead, I risked my own seat at the Boston convention and, along with other DNC officials, made a desperate appeal to local party activists and officials to defy the city council and not the national party.

Talk about drama! The Rev. Al Sharpton was on the ballot, along with first black woman to ever serve in the U.S. Senate, Carol Moseley Braun. Here I am, a black woman, taking on two black candidates who would have greatly benefited from the District of Columbia being first in the nation. Yes, I took some hits that left scars, but rules are rules. It's more important to protect the integrity of the process than to be blinded by loyalty to one's own.

I believe the DNC had no choice in 2004 but to enforce its rules. Therefore, regarding Florida and Michigan, I believe that in spite of the risk of alienating millions of voters in states that could ultimately decide the election this fall, Howard Dean and party officials must also stick to the rules.

With two-thirds of the primary contests already completed, the DNC cannot allow the Florida and Michigan delegates to decide the nomination. It would be wrong. And it would be dangerous.

The democratic process is the product of years of evolution to produce a fair and open process. Allowing two electorally vibrant states to disregard the rules without penalty will jeopardize the integrity of the process and the ability of both major parties to put in place nominating rules that are fair, inclusive and consistent with precedent. It will open the door to disregarding rules governing equal division, an open process and representation goals. Besides, if this were about a state party disregarding the equal division rule, there would be no debate. So why treat the timing rule differently?

Then what's to be done?

I suggest that these two states avoid any "do-over" contests. The voters have spoken. While Obama may not like the results in Michigan, where his name didn't appear on the ballot, I have a hard time ignoring the Florida results, where his name did. More important, a do-over would send a terrible message to states already thinking about moving their primary or caucus forward in 2012 or, heaven forbid, 2011. After all, the reason the party came down hard last year was to avoid a primary being held before the winter holidays.

It's been suggested that credentials committee members who seat the delegates should take up the issue of seating delegates from Florida and Michigan after voters in states that complied with the rules settle on the nominee. While Michigan and Florida may not be happy with this decision, perhaps they can learn to live with it if the alternative is being shut out the process completely.

Others have suggested that we allow the renegade delegations to attend the convention without a vote at roll call or that we reduce the size of their delegations by seating only pledged delegates and none of their superdelegates.

The bottom line is that we need to think this through and talk with officials from those two states who are willing to come up with a workable alternative that does not ask the DNC or the nominee to act as if nothing happened. This issue is bigger than who we select to lead our party. It's about whether rules should govern us through the process or be ignored to manipulate the process.

Laws and rules are not suggestions. When we decide to break the laws and rules governing our society, we do so knowing that we risk paying the price for it. Florida and Michigan elected officials as well as party leaders knew the price for breaking the rules. If they don't pay it, there will be no rules governing the 2012 election process. There will only be suggestions and chaos.

Donna Brazile is a political commentator on CNN, ABC and NPR, contributing columnist to Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill, and former campaign manager for Al Gore.