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.
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.
A company run by Mark S. Weiner, a Clinton supporter who became a superdelegate by virtue of his party leadership role in Rhode Island, has been paid more than $800,000 for campaign bumper stickers, signs and other paraphernalia.
Both said in interviews that their company contracts will not influence their votes as superdelegates. "We're not in anybody's pocket," Ickes said.
Within the Clinton and Obama campaigns, though, the only concern has been amassing support.
At a recent House Democratic Caucus retreat in Virginia, members who had already committed to a presidential candidate used every spare moment to lobby their colleagues.
"There's a concerted effort in both camps to talk to as many people, as many superdelegates, as possible about your candidate," said Rep. John B. Larson (Conn.), who was originally a supporter of Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.).
Larson and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), another former Dodd supporter, officially endorsed Obama on Feb. 2 and joined a growing network of members of Congress who are organizing an outreach effort to line up more superdelegates for him. With Clinton ahead in superdelegate endorsements so far, Obama supporters are making lists of undeclared House and Senate Democrats and setting up meetings to pitch their candidate.
"It will be a door-to-door campaign on my part with my colleagues," DeLauro said, adding that she has set up about a dozen meetings with House Democrats for the weeks ahead. "It will be a formidable operation."
Democratic operatives not affiliated with either campaign consider Clinton's operation in the superdelegate race much more formidable. Rep. John D. Dingell (Mich.), the longest-serving member of the House, never received a call from the Obama campaign, according to a source close to the Energy and Commerce Committee chairman. Last week, Dingell endorsed Clinton.
And some superdelegates can be worth more than others, particularly those who have the ability to bring along others with them.
Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.), who endorsed Clinton last year and is viewed as a vice presidential possibility, is trying to lock down the five DNC members from Indiana who are superdelegates on behalf of Clinton, according to a source close to Bayh.
Obama's campaign is working hard to catch up.
While three members of Connecticut's congressional delegation have endorsed Obama, the state has six DNC members who are also superdelegates. Two days after Dodd's campaign flamed out in Iowa, Obama was on the phone, telling Larson about his bid and the high-minded effort to refashion the way campaigns are waged.
"Obama made the best pitch himself. Sometimes seeing is believing," Larson said, recalling that both candidates and Bill Clinton called the weekend after the Iowa caucuses. "I heard from him. I heard from Hillary. I heard from Obama. . . . It's not as if they were beating down the path to me. They were beating down the path to everyone."
The calculation of whom to endorse can be complicated: Superdelegates must think not only about their personal views but also about how their votes will be viewed by constituents, said Ickes, who has chased their support on behalf of candidates since 1988.
"You try to figure out, what factors influence them? Who do they talk to about presidential politics?" Ickes said. "Sometimes, it's two or three close confidants, sometimes it's a chief of staff, or someone who raises money for them. Maybe there's an issue that's important to them."
One adviser helping to oversee Obama's superdelegate efforts said the Clintons entered the contest for support with a significant edge, by virtue of Bill Clinton's ability to get on the phone and "try to call in all the chits that they believe they have."
The Obama adviser thinks those delegates are all spoken for at this point. "They got all of the low-hanging fruit. The ones left are the ones much harder for them to reach," he said, referring to the Clinton campaign.
With more than half of the superdelegates unclaimed, both campaigns remain hard at work. And even those whom they believe are secure could move. Arceneaux, the Baton Rouge delegate whose husband was named by Clinton in the 1990s as head of Sallie Mae, the nation's largest student loan company, said she is well aware of the fact that superdelegates are not firmly bound to a candidate until they stand up at the convention in August.
"I always have the option of changing my mind," she said.
Research director Lucy Shackleford and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.