Clinton has reason to count on superdelegates

In focus -- politics

March 16, 2008|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

WASHINGTON -- Barack Obama blew Hillary Clinton away in last month's Mid-Atlantic primary. Nearly half of Obama's delegate lead over Clinton can be traced to his landslide victories in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

But the region's superdelegates are in a different camp. Those who have made endorsements favor Clinton over Obama in each of the jurisdictions that held primaries that day.

In Maryland, a state she lost by 23 percentage points, Clinton has twice as many superdelegate backers, 10 to Obama's five.

Chalk that up to one of Clinton's biggest - and most overlooked - advantages in the nomination fight: the Democratic National Committee.

Anyone with passing interest in the '08 campaign knows that superdelegates include Democratic governors and members of Congress. In part because their own necks are at risk on Election Day, they've been given the power to pick any candidate they want and, if necessary, help steer the party away from a disaster in November. These superdelegates are getting intense media scrutiny, along with relentless lobbying by the candidates and their supporters.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, who is uncommitted, has been contacted twice by former President Bill Clinton, and he chats from time to time with both Obama and Hillary Clinton, along with their top surrogates.

"It's soft-sell, at best," Cardin says. The campaigns were taking his temperature "almost hourly" in the lead-up to the Ohio and Texas primaries, when he was rumored to be on the verge of an endorsement (he declines to say for whom).

There's another category of superdelegates, more numerous than the governors and members of Congress combined but almost totally out of the public eye: the roughly 400 activists who make up the party's national committee.

At the moment, they are Clinton's secret weapon in the race for superdelegates, accounting for nearly her entire advantage in that category.

Clinton has 255 superdelegate supporters to Obama's 207, according to a New York Times count, a difference of 48 superdelegates. According to information supplied by the campaigns and other sources, Clinton has 151 DNC superdelegates to Obama's 110, a lead of 41.

Unlike members of Congress and governors, most of the largely anonymous DNC members lack significant experience in national campaigns. They haven't had to worry about whether an unpopular presidential nominee could sink their own careers because not many hold elective office.

"They bring almost nothing to the table," said Mark A. Siegel, a Clinton supporter from Maryland who speaks from long experience. As a former executive director of the DNC, he chaired an advisory panel to the 1982 party commission that rewrote the nominating rules and created the class of delegates that came to be known as superdelegates.

He said all DNC members, other than state party chairs and vice chairs, could be eliminated from the superdelegate category without harming the party. The original superdelegate rules did not even include the DNC members.

"They added themselves," explained Siegel, a DNC member for many years. (The Republican National Committee liked their Democratic counterparts' idea so much, they copied it and made themselves automatic convention delegates, too.)

During the Clinton administration, DNC members were feted at the White House and given special tickets to the presidential inauguration. More than a few DNC members owe their seats to President Clinton (and, like Supreme Court justices, many serve virtually for as long as they choose).

Twenty-one of Clinton's 25 area superdelegates sit on the DNC (the others are Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Bill Clinton's former national party chairman, Terry McAuliffe). Her DNC superdelegates from Washington, D.C. , Maryland and Virginia include at least seven who were aides or appointees during the Clinton presidency.

The strong Clinton tilt among "Potomac primary" superdelegates also reflects the DNC slots that the party provides to its most powerful interest group, organized labor. Several labor superdelegates live in Maryland, including officials of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and two from the machinists union, both of which have endorsed Clinton.

Obama's area superdelegate supporters include an official of the Service Employees International Union, which has endorsed Obama. AFL-CIO head John Sweeney, a member of the Maryland delegation to the convention in Denver, is still uncommitted, as are almost half of the state's superdelegates.

Greg Pecararo of Westminster, a DNC member since 1996, said he complained in jest to a Clinton delegate tracker that he hadn't even gotten a call from the candidate's daughter, Chelsea.

"It shows where I rank," said Pecararo, who sees no reason to make a choice until the August convention and dismisses the notion that a prolonged nomination fight will help John McCain.

How Maryland and the rest of the country voted will be one factor in his decision, said Pecararo. But the rush of states to hold early primaries did "not allow the normal nomination process to play out" this year, and party rules "give us the obligation to substitute our judgment for what would have happened there."

He said it was a "philosophical question" as to whether other factors might also influence his vote, such as the interests of his trade association. Pecararo runs a lobbying arm of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, and "if your employer came to you" and expressed an opinion for one Democrat over another, he acknowledged, "you might take that into account."

paul.west@baltsun.com

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