With the early endorsement of organized labor in hand, Vice President Gore is moving to overwhelm Democratic rival Bill Bradley in the competition for the support of 799 "superdelegates" among the 4,336 delegates to the Democratic convention in 2000.
The superdelegates -- members of Congress, the Democratic National Committee and other prominent elected and party leaders -- are the linchpin of Gore's strategy to win a long, drawn-out contest against Bradley. Gore campaign officials say they are positioned to defeat Bradley by better than 10 to 1 among these Democrats, who are guaranteed spots as delegates, and who are the only delegates free to select the candidate of their choice.
The superdelegates offer a candidate the opportunity to pull substantially ahead of an opponent even before the primaries begin, in fact the only opportunity to make decisive gains in an otherwise close contest.
The 799 superdelegates exceed the combined total delegates of the two biggest states, California (434) and New York (294). Winning among the superdelegates is like "winning a huge primary," said Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile. "These Democrats remember who was out there helping them, and they are returning the favor."
If Gore approaches the claims of his advisers, he will emerge ahead of Bradley by 500 or more among the superdelegates. That is just under a quarter of the 2,169 votes it takes to win the nomination.
Bradley's anti-politics image puts him at a disadvantage in the fight for superdelegates, who are the representatives of the very system he faults. For Gore, in contrast, the characteristics that have hurt him with the public -- his lifelong involvement in politics, his readiness to raise money or do a favor for an associate -- are just what the politician-superdelegates are looking for.
Gore's success on this crucial front is evident in New Jersey, Bradley's home state, where Bradley's disdain for politics is coming home to roost.
There, state party chairman Thomas Giblin, a Bradley supporter, readily concedes that Gore will win a majority of the state's superdelegates, probably 60 percent of the total compared with 40 percent for Bradley, even though Bradley is the decisive favorite to win the state's primary.
In the state he represented in the Senate for 18 years, Bradley does not have the backing of either Democratic senator or any of the seven Democratic House members.
Newark Mayor Sharpe James was an early Bradley supporter who now views him as untrustworthy in a tough fight. "He doesn't want to get his hands dirty; he doesn't want to get into issues that touch the hardship of working Americans," James said, referring to Bradley as "Mr. Clean." James said he told Bradley that voters "in the streets are calling you a bottle of Lysol."
Rep. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) was "ostracized" by the Hudson County Democratic machine when he backed Bradley in the 1978 Democratic primary. Now, however, Menendez is committed to Gore.
What happened? In 1992, Menendez ran for Congress and asked Bradley to back him in his primary. Bradley's aides said the senator "doesn't want to get involved if there is a contest among Democrats." How would Menendez compare Bradley to Gore: "Gore is someone who, if you are his friend and supporter, he is with you 100 percent."
In interview after interview, members of Congress said Gore campaigned for them, contributed money to their races, played host at fund-raisers and would do what he could to clear roadblocks in the bureaucracy.
"We refer to him as our third senator; he has been so good to Nevada," said Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who endorsed Gore last week. "Whenever I've had a problem with a judge or whatever, he has been really good."
"He supported me, his PAC contributed money," freshman Rep. Joseph M. Hoeffel III (D-Pa.), who won just 52 percent of the vote, said of Gore. "The administration has been terrific, helping with grants, a new community health center in the county seat, a transportation grant." Hoeffel's endorsement decision "didn't take much pushing."
A strategy of depending on superdelegates carries vulnerabilities, most important the charge that politicians, not voters, are deciding the nominee -- a point the Bradley campaign was quick to note.
"It's voters who decide elections, and that is our focus," said Bradley spokesman Eric Hauser, who acknowledged that Gore has a decisive advantage among superdelegates. "Political mechanics overlook the most important themes, which are the appeal of the candidate and the power of the electorate."
Gore officials said that they already have 420 commitments from superdelegates. In addition, they said, last week's AFL-CIO endorsement will add 80 superdelegates to push the total to 500.
This advantage among the superdelegates becomes all the more important under the proportional representation rules governing the allocation of delegates selected in state primaries and caucuses. The current rules prohibit "winner-take-all" victories.
Gore strategist Tad Devine points to the 1984 California Democratic primary to demonstrate the consequences of such a victory. Under the 1984 winner-take-all rules that governed delegate selection, then-Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), who won the primary with 43 percent of the vote, collected 204 delegates while former vice president Walter F. Mondale's 40 percent brought him 73 -- a net gain of 131 delegates for Hart.
But under the current proportional representation rules, the same outcome would have resulted in a net gain of only four delegates for Hart. In a congressional district that awards four delegates, one candidate has to win by a margin of more than 24 percentage points, a landslide, or the winner and loser get two delegates each. In a six-delegate district, each candidate gets three unless one wins by a margin of more than 16 percentage points.
If, then, the primaries are hard-fought, relatively even contests, the superdelegates can be the deciding factor.
"You have to have [an] edge with superdelegates or you don't win," Devine said.
"They are trying to have it both ways," Hauser countered. "One day they are the underdogs, the next they are inevitable."