The overwhelming majority of Democratic leaders who are automatic delegates to next summer's national convention have no clear idea who they want as the party's presidential nominee, according to the campaign season's first delegate survey by the Associated Press.
The 278 Democratic delegates who are uncommitted outnumber those with an early candidate preference by nearly four to one. The leader among the candidates, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, has lined up just 23 delegates, who will cast 22.5 votes at the convention.
To gauge the extent of candidate support two months before the first 1988 presidential caucus, the Associated Press interviewed 354 of the 416 Democratic "superdelegates," a group that includes members of the Democratic National Committee, governors and past party leaders.
The survey found that Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) trails Dukakis with 13 convention votes while Sen. Paul Simon (Ill.) has 12. Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (Tenn.) has 10.55, Jesse L. Jackson, 9.8, and former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt four.
But these early commitments largely represent "favorite son" support. And their significance is far overshadowed by the 278 superdelegates who say they are uncommitted. In all, 76 superdelegates expressed a preference.
"I'm undecided and not particularly happy about it," said Kathy Farley, a Democratic National Committee member from Colorado.
Elaine Kamarck, who tracks delegates for Babbitt, and Matt Seyfang, who handles these duties for Gephardt, said they think that some party insiders may be reluctant to commit themselves so soon after the campaign burnouts of Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and former senator Gary Hart (D-Colo.)
Tad Devine, director of delegate selection for Dukakis, predicted that the party regulars will withhold judgment until they see how the candidates fare at the polls beginning with the Feb. 8 Iowa caucuses.
"At some point these things crystallize," Kamarck said. "There's never been a candidate named 'Uncommitted' elected president."
In addition to the 390 convention votes held by the automatic delegates, 253 members of Congress are to be selected in April as convention delegates. In all, these superdelegates, holding more than 15 percent of the delegate vote, are an influential voting bloc whose unpledged status would make them a key force should there be a deadlock among the declared candidates.
Most of the remaining 3,517 Democratic delegates will be chosen during primary and caucus elections in which they are pledged to support a particular candidate.