By Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 6, 2008
Former Montana senator John Melcher said he hadn't felt any urgency to take sides in the race between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama until late last month, when Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean called on superdelegates to make up their minds by July 1.
"So after two days of that, I agreed with him that maybe I should, so I did," said Melcher, who announced Wednesday that he will support Obama, based on the candidate's early opposition to the Iraq war.
Though Melcher and a handful of high-profile Democrats have recently chosen sides in the presidential nominating contest, few others of the party's uncommitted superdelegates appear likely to budge before Pennsylvania's primary on April 22 -- and many have indicated that they will wait until the primaries end in June before picking a candidate.
Many of the 320 or so party leaders and elected officials who have yet to commit cite a number of reasons: They can't choose between two good candidates, they don't want to interfere with the will of voters, and they think the extended contest will strengthen the party.
"There are a lot of things going on underneath this boiling cauldron between the candidates that will be good for us long term," said Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), an uncommitted superdelegate, noting the 26,000 new Democrats who registered in Cuyahoga County before the Ohio primary. "I'm not in a hurry to do this."
But other high-ranking Democrats are in a hurry, fearing that the prolonged nomination battle will hurt the party's chances in November against Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive Republican nominee, and in congressional contests.
"What you're seeing now is creating divisions that may be hard to heal," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "We'd be in a much better position if we would focus the public's attention [on McCain]. Instead, we're focused on the differences between our two candidates, and it's going to end up hurting our eventual nominee.
"I just don't want to see our congressional candidates become collateral damage," he added. "If the energy and excitement is not sustained, that could create problems."
Most recent superdelegate commitments have gone to Obama (Ill.), who is steadily eroding the lead that Clinton (N.Y.) has held from the outset of the race. But Obama's gains have not come as quickly as many had anticipated after he followed his strong showing in Super Tuesday contests on Feb. 5 with 11 wins in a row.
From early December through early March, 144 superdelegates declared for Obama, according to a tally maintained by the Associated Press. He has added 14 superdelegates since March 5, for a total of 221, compared with a gain of nine for Clinton, bringing her count to 251, according to the AP.
Clinton supporters say the slow pace of commitments is because of concerns, after Obama's March 4 losses in Texas and Ohio, about whether he can win in November -- doubts they have aggressively sought to stir in their private lobbying efforts.
"If you can't win it in the primary, how are you going to win it in November? That's our pitch," said Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), a Clinton backer.
Of the 14 superdelegates who committed to Obama in March, most said they came to their decisions independently, rather than in response to cajoling by Obama or his surrogates.
Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (Pa.), for instance, was largely left alone by the candidates, who figured the cautious freshman would remain neutral at least until the end of the primaries. But during a family vacation over Easter, Casey decided to support Obama because of his change-oriented message, a decision Casey conveyed in a surprise phone call to the candidate on Easter night.
Casey's popularity with working-class Catholics is likely to boost Obama's chances in Pennsylvania, where Clinton leads by a sizable margin in most public opinion polls. Casey plays down Obama's odds of winning the state, but he believes that whatever the outcome, the contest will improve Democrats' position in the crucial battleground state this fall.
"Even if we lose Pennsylvania and it's a fairly wide margin, assuming he can still be nominated, it will help him a lot in the fall," Casey said of Obama. "If he didn't have this contest here, a state that is so big and so diverse, he would have to show up here in August with nothing."
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), who endorsed Obama last week, said that both candidates "knew where I was headed" but that she put off her decision because she wanted to remain publicly neutral. She changed her mind when she concluded that the race was dragging on for too long.
Rep. Brad Miller (N.C.), on the other hand, said he is holding out despite relentless courting by supporters of both candidates, including an aggressive Obama outreach on Capitol Hill. "They obviously have a whip system, or a buddy system, and obviously a couple people have taken me as a buddy," he said.
Both candidates are eager to enlist Miller before his state's primary in May. Clinton called in late March, and Obama tried to reach him Wednesday, leaving a message while the congressman was attending a House hearing. "He's got my cellphone number," said Miller, who intends to wait at least until after Pennsylvania's vote to make a decision.
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.) also remains uncommitted, almost two months after his state voted overwhelmingly for Obama. He said Obama and Clinton supporters in the Senate still politely check in with him "to see if there's anything more they can do." Their pitches are strikingly similar, he said: Both sides contend that their candidate is the most electable and has generated the most enthusiasm among voters. "It's just the candidate's name that is different," Cardin said.
Rep. Artur Davis (Ala.), a leading Obama supporter in the House, predicted that many lawmakers will wait to make a decision until after the Pennsylvania primary, including House Democrats from North Carolina and from Indiana, which both vote on May 6. And he expects many more to hold off until just after the final primaries, in South Dakota and Montana, on June 3.
But if Obama maintains his leads in the popular vote and in pledged delegates by then, that would trigger a flood of endorsements that would bring a quick close to the race. "As a practical matter, I believe this race will be over by Friday, June 6," Davis said.
While many Democrats worry that the extended nomination battle could wound the eventual candidate, others believe it could prove to be a blessing. In virtually every state that has voted, Democrats have turned out in record numbers. More than 230,000 new party members signed up in Pennsylvania alone. And Obama and Clinton are building grass-roots organizations that can be readily reactivated in the general election.