The Superdelegate Showdown Might be Key to the Democratic Nomination

Both Clinton and Obama are fighting for support from this key group.

Sen. Dick Durbin provides delegates with a personal history of Obama.

Sen. Dick Durbin provides delegates with a personal history of Obama.

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At least once a week, each superdelegate to the Democratic National Convention gets a special phone call. It might be from Hillary or Bill Clinton. It might be from their daughter, Chelsea, or campaign honcho Harold Ickes, or some other big shot from Hillaryland. But someone will call. In fact, six staffers are assigned to make sure the contacts are made and to keep track of the delegates' mood swings. "You walk a fine line," Ickes says. "You don't want to be a pest, but on the other hand you don't want them to think you're ignoring them."

It's all part of the growing effort to court the most prized constituency of the 2008 campaign right now—the about 800 superdelegates who make up some 20 percent of the total number of votes at the convention and could, in the end, decide the outcome. Around 300 remain undecided or haven't yet announced their choice in the presidential race, but even the committed are perfectly capable of changing their minds, so they are being courted, too.

Barack Obama's campaign also is undertaking an aggressive effort to woo the "supers," although it doesn't appear to be as methodical as Clinton's. "We remain in contact with the superdelegates and make sure they get information about the campaign and what the candidate is up to," says Obama spokesman Bill Burton. "Ultimately, we are in contact with the superdelegates at many levels." He declined to describe the details, fearing he might give away some tactical information to the opposition. But the latest dust-up on the campaign trail threatens to undermine any progress Obama's campaign has made. Obama's attempt to distance himself from his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, highlights again his connections to a clergyman who is widely seen as anti-American and antiwhite. If he loses the Indiana and North Carolina primaries because of this controversy, it could irreparably harm Obama's ability to court the superdelegates and conceivably cost him the nomination.

But neither side's hunt for the remaining superdelegates has paid off in a big way. That's because many of their quarry seem intent on waiting to see which way the wind is blowing in the final primaries and holding off making their decisions until June, when the nominating contests are over. That's the approach advocated by increasing numbers of party satraps, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who is urging all delegates to choose sides by July 1 to avoid a messy brokered convention in August.

The worst scenario for the Democrats is that the superdelegates procrastinate until the convention opens in Denver August 25 and both Obama and Clinton are drawn into a last-minute demolition derby. The ego factor will be enormous, since many of the superdelegates are important figures in their own right, ranging from former Presidents Clinton and Carter to virtually all the Democratic governors, members of Congress, state party chairmen, and big donors. None of them want to be told what to do or appear to be knuckling under to pressure.

How will the superdelegates make their decisions? About one third say the most important factor will be which candidate has the best chance of capturing the White House, according to a recent survey of superdelegates by the Associated Press. "I think it's really important that we keep our eye on the prize, and the prize is the win in November," says Gail Rasmussen, a DNC member and an undecided superdelegate from Oregon.

One in 10 says the biggest factor will be nominating the candidate with the most pledged delegates won in primaries and caucuses. "I would favor the people making the decision rather than insiders and party bosses," says Rep. Dan Boren of Oklahoma. Boren, who is undecided, disagreed with the suggestion of Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen and other party leaders that the superdelegates hold their own convention in June to make an endorsement. That prospect appears unlikely, since it seems too close to the bad days of smoke-filled rooms and boss politics.