Pa. win too thin to sway choice

Election 2008

April 24, 2008|By David Nitkin and Matthew Hay Brown | David Nitkin and Matthew Hay Brown,Sun reporters

WASHINGTON -- Hillary Clinton's Pennsylvania victory has done little to simplify the challenge facing Maryland super-delegates who must decide when and how to step in and pick a Democratic nominee.

A recognition is emerging, interviews show, that the super-delegates who have yet to announce a presidential choice will likely wait until the primary season ends in early June.

Those reached yesterday said they would likely declare their support for Clinton or Barack Obama before a July 1 deadline set informally by Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean.

"I think it would be a big mistake to take a divided party into the convention in Denver and have these divisions play out on national television," said Chris Van Hollen, a congressman from Montgomery County who heads the House Democrats' campaign arm.

Neither Clinton nor Obama is expected to gain enough delegates in the nine remaining contests to win the nomination.

As a result, the roughly 240 superdelegates who have yet to announce their choices will get to determine the nominee.

Some of these undeclared superdelegates -- including 12 from Maryland, the second-highest number of any state -- said they didn't pick up enough fresh information in the latest election to push them off the fence.

"When you're trying to find a trend line as to who's the best candidate in November, it was not a conclusive result in Pennsylvania one way or the other," said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin.

Clinton's win, by more than 9 percentage points, was almost an exact copy of her 10-point victory in Ohio in early March.

"For the most part, my thinking has not changed," said state party Chairman Michael Cryor. "They both remain talented and competent candidates. They both performed well, under different circumstances."

Cryor thinks Dean's deadline should be moved up a few weeks: "The sooner, the better," he said.

Superdelegates get an automatic convention vote by virtue of their elective office or party position, and they account for one-fifth of the total number of delegates.

The category was created more than 20 years ago in reaction to growing influence from liberal activists who, more conservative Democrats feared, would drag the party too far to the left and make its nominee unelectable.

Complicated decision

Among the factors the undeclared Marylanders say they may consider: who won the popular vote in the primaries and caucuses (Obama leads, but Clinton has a slim chance of overtaking him); who captured more pledged delegates (Obama has an apparently insurmountable lead); and the Maryland primary, won by Obama in a landslide.

State vice chairwoman Lauren Glover said she'll take all those into account, but Pennsylvania left her "in the same place that we were" and she's "still listening to what the candidates are saying." Obama contacted her personally a month ago and "was very persuasive in the position he wanted."

Part of Clinton's latest pitch, made publicly in TV interviews and privately by her campaign to the superdelegates, is that she has now overtaken Obama in popular votes, if Florida and Michigan are taken into account.

But Glover and others are cool to the idea of basing a decision on votes from states whose primaries were invalidated by the national party for moving up the dates. Obama's name was not even on the Michigan ballot.

"You can't change the rules in the middle of the game," Glover said.

Another Clinton argument -- that superdelegates should pick the candidate best able to defeat Republican John McCain -- is finding some footing.

Gregory Pecoraro, a former state transportation official who works for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said Obama and Clinton remain closely matched at the end of the primary season so "that's all you have left, your individual judgment. ... I don't know that we are going to get that clear a signal from the voters."

Effective soft sell

Clinton invited Pecoraro to a meeting for superdelegates earlier this month, and he said she made a soft sell that he found effective.

Cardin said the decision is complicated by the fact that "polling data shows they're both about even."

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said that he was "concerned about the tone of the campaign" and that groups of superdelegates were meeting "informally" to talk about a resolution.

Others tried to put a positive face on the prolonged contest, noting that it has drawn record numbers of new voters.

On balance, "the energy and enthusiasm, the turnout, is a good thing," said Rep. John Sarbanes of Baltimore County, who said he won't announce his choice until after June 3. "If we hadn't gone to Pennsylvania, you wouldn't have had 2 million Democrats coming out."

Susan W. Turnbull of Bethesda, a vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said she will stay neutral until a presumptive nominee has emerged.

"When I am ready to say who I am for, I will be adding to that margin, not creating that margin," she said.

david.nitkin@baltsun.com matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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