796 Insiders May Hold Democrats' Key

The Republican and Democratic presidential candidates make a final appeal to voters before the "Potomac Primaries" of Maryland, Virginia and D.C. on Feb. 12, 2008.
By Matthew Mosk and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 10, 2008

For months, Patsy Arceneaux sat on the fence as key aides to the presidential campaigns of Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama made gentle but persistent inquiries. Ann Lewis, a close Clinton adviser, called weekly. The 2004 Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), called, urging her to jump behind Obama.

They all wanted to know the same thing: how she planned to vote in her role as a superdelegate at this summer's national convention.

Last week, the Baton Rouge party loyalist, one of 796 Democratic insiders who may well determine the eventual nominee, got the call that finally persuaded her -- from former president Bill Clinton, the man who 10 years earlier gave her husband a job.

"When the president called, I said to him, 'I guess I've moved to the top of the food chain,' " Arceneaux laughed. "He was very persuasive."

The calls were just one aspect of the aggressive campaign underway to win what could be the most important and least understood contest in the race for the Democratic nomination. As a group, the "superdelegates," a category created by party leaders in 1982 to give elected officials more clout in the nominating process, constitute a prize worth twice as much as the state of California.

[View a full list of Democratic super delegates (PDF)]

Though Clinton and Obama have pursued the support of superdelegates for a year, the courtships have intensified in recent weeks as it has become clear that the two are locked in a virtual dead heat for delegate support. Party insiders say this could be the first campaign in more than two decades that reaches the national convention in August without a clear nominee, making the votes of superdelegates -- a group made up of current and former top elected officials and Democratic National Committee (DNC) members from around the nation -- potentially decisive.

"Right now, everyone is busting their chops to try to get the remaining superdelegates to commit. And they're having a real hard time of it," said Mike Berman, a Clinton supporter who worked on Walter F. Mondale's 1984 campaign, the last one in which superdelegates were a factor.

So far, 213 superdelegates have publicly committed to backing Clinton and 139 have pledged their support to Obama, according to a survey by the Associated Press.

The potential for superdelegates to play a critical role has some party leaders worried that the situation could lend the appearance that the nominee will be selected by insiders rather than by rank-and-file voters.

That appearance is not helped by the fact that so many superdelegates have clear allegiances. Bill Clinton, for instance, is a superdelegate by virtue of his tenure as president, as are Clinton campaign chairman Terence R. McAuliffe and longtime Clinton ally Harold Ickes. Though Hillary Clinton has a clear edge, former senator Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.), a strong Obama supporter, and Alan Solomont, Obama's Northeast finance chairman, are superdelegates as well.

Some have significant financial ties to the campaigns. The Clinton campaign paid Ickes's company, Catalist, a broker of voter contact lists, more than $125,000 last year. Obama's campaign also paid Ickes's firm, spending $25,000 to rent a mailing list.

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