In Background, a Battle for Superdelegates
Clinton Ahead Among Party Leaders, but Threat of a Wholesale Shift Remains

By Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Bill Richardson's phone has been ringing off the hook.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton called Sunday night, followed by her husband, and then Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a Clinton backer. Sen. Barack Obama called twice Monday morning. Monday afternoon, Richardson spent 15 minutes on the phone with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

But the New Mexico governor, who dropped out of the presidential race after a dismal finish in the New Hampshire primary, is torn. "I have a history with the Clintons," said Richardson, who served in the Clinton administration, first as ambassador to the United Nations, then as energy secretary. "And I've always liked her," he said. But he considers Kennedy "a mentor" who helped to get him elected to Congress in 1982. He also likes Obama but remains undecided.

Obama allies are hoping to make Richardson take part in a stream of high-profile endorsements from Democratic Party leaders, who will help to dismantle what the Clinton campaign calls its "firewall" in the nomination battle: a clear advantage among superdelegates, who account for about a quarter of the total number of delegates who will determine the nominee.

During a campaign stop in El Dorado, Kan., yesterday, Obama introduced his second big catch in as many days: Kathleen Sebelius, the two-term Kansas governor who delivered the Democratic response to President Bush's State of the Union address on Monday night. Clinton also added another high-profile name to her list yesterday: Rep. Maxine Waters, a liberal African American representing part of delegate-rich California.

Sebelius, Kennedy (Mass.), Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano are among those who recently signed on as Obama supporters. They will serve as vital surrogates on both the airwaves and the campaign trail, as Obama challenges Clinton on Feb. 5 in 22 states, including many where she retains a significant advantage in the polls.

The high-profile supporters will also play key roles in the backroom battle over superdelegates, also known as unpledged delegates. Mainly members of Congress, governors, party elders and grass-roots activists, they are free to back any candidate they choose. Clinton, former president Bill Clinton (a superdelegate himself) and their allies have been working aggressively for months to court the superdelegates, drawing on old loyalties to open a huge advantage for the senator from New York in total delegates amassed.

"One person, one vote? Forget about it. Some votes are worth more than others. You have to know the rules," said Donna Brazile, the campaign manager for Al Gore in the 2000 presidential race and a D.C. superdelegate.

Of the nearly 300 superdelegates who have committed to a candidate, out of a total of 796, Clinton leads Obama roughly by a 2-to-1 ratio, according to numerous counts. The lead is so substantial, her campaign asserts, that even if Obama pulls ahead in pledged delegates after Feb. 5, Clinton will probably retain a modest edge in the overall delegate tally.

But there is a catch. While delegates chosen in a primary or caucus are technically committed to a candidate, superdelegates can change their allegiance at any time.

The threat of a wholesale shift hangs over both candidates. Kennedy's endorsement came in part after the veteran Democrat grew frustrated with Clinton campaign tactics that some construed as racially charged.

The Obama campaign is scrambling to close the superdelegate gap by signing up Democratic notables such as Kennedy who can tap their contact lists while offering validation to potential Obama supporters who may still be wavering.

"The only reason Hillary Clinton is ahead right now is because more politicians, particularly politicians in very blue states, have endorsed her," said McCaskill, who traveled to Kansas and Missouri with Obama yesterday. She is now appearing in ads for Obama, as are Napolitano and Sen. Kent Conrad (N.D.) in their respective states.

Both Obama and Clinton began a blitz of the airwaves in Feb. 5 states this week. Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (Ill.), another Obama surrogate, will appear with Kennedy in a Spanish-language ad for the California and Arizona markets, countering a new Spanish-language ad from Clinton. The Obama campaign yesterday released a new television spot featuring Caroline Kennedy speaking over images of her late father, President John F. Kennedy. That ad will appear in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and on cable.

Clinton went on the air yesterday in New York and Philadelphia.

Numerous lawmakers said in interviews that Clinton and her husband have intensified their superdelegate lobbying efforts in recent days. "It's always great to hear from people," laughed Sen. Russell Feingold (Wis.), a highly coveted uncommitted as both a superdelegate and an icon of the antiwar left. Feingold said that, overall, he has had more contact with Obama's campaign, "but the Clinton side has been picking up." He said he is likely to wait until after Feb. 5 before deciding whether to endorse anyone.

Three of the biggest remaining targets for endorsements are former Democratic candidates Richardson, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.). Both senators said they had heard from the former president in recent days. "They're all calling. Barack's calling; she's calling," said Dodd, who is still on the fence.

Richardson said: "If I do endorse, it's going to be a gut feeling. It's not going to be about statistics, about past ties. I've been on the campaign trail with both of them. I feel that I know them. I feel I know the issues. I feel I know what makes them both tick."

While many superdelegates are prominent names in political circles -- including Clinton aides Harold Ickes and Minyon Moore -- the largest number, a total of 411, are rank-and-file members of the Democratic National Committee -- such as local party activists who work in manufacturing and teachers unions -- many of whom rose to power during the Clinton administration. These local activists may not bring the same symbolic freight a Kennedy does, but they count equally as superdelegates and are overwhelmingly allied with Clinton.

In the event that Clinton and Obama arrive in Denver for the party's nominating convention with roughly equal numbers of pledged delegates, superdelegates could make the difference.

Brazile, recalling the 2000 campaign, when she was in charge of corralling superdelegates for Gore, said that, before touching down in any town, she would be handed a stack of index cards with the names and pictures of party officials, so she could approach them. "We knew just about everything you could possibly know about the superdelegates," she said. "Some people fell in love very easily. Other people have to be courted like you're asking them out on a date. Seriously, it's a dating game. It's exciting."

Staff writer Jose Antonio Vargas contributed to this report.

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