Superdelegate stalemate shows no signs of easing

By Larry Rohter and Carl Hulse

New York Times News Service

Jeanne Lemire Dahlman, a Montana superdelegate and rancher, has declared her allegiance to Sen. Barack Obama. But she said voters in her state, whose primary is June 3, are thrilled by the unresolved Democratic nominating fight, which gives them a potential voice in a nominating process that has usually bypassed them.

"A part of me would like to wrap this up," she acknowledged. "But I think Sen. Clinton should continue, unless she tanks in Indiana."

The Pennsylvania primary was supposed to help clarify the picture for the 795 Democratic superdelegates, but Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s strong victory there on Tuesday has in many ways complicated matters for them, furthering a stalemate that has deeply divided the party even as top Democrats called this week for them to make up their minds by June.


The latest New York Times survey of superdelegates — the party leaders and elected officials who essentially have the power to determine the nominee — finds that Clinton holds a 16-delegate edge that slices into Obama’s overall lead in delegates. And those 478 superdelegates who have declared their allegiances show no signs of switching sides as the primary calendar proceeds toward its June 3 ending.

Donald L. Fowler is a South Carolina superdelegate who supports Clinton. His wife, Carol, is a superdelegate too, but she supports Obama. Needless to say, they have very different views of how the party should proceed in light of Clinton’s Pennsylvania win.

"It’s sort of like what you would have heard at the Super Bowl at the end of the third quarter," Donald Fowler said. "Patriot fans are anxious and optimistic, and Giant fans are hopeful and a little bit more anxious. But the game is not over."

He said Clinton supporters like him "are encouraged" by the Pennsylvania results, "but we’re not naive." He added: "We’re still behind and we’ve got a lot to do to catch up. She’s playing games now where she has to win them all."

Carol Fowler, who is chairwoman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said that once the primaries are over, she would like to see like to see a prompt resolution. "I’ve been in politics long enough to know that when you get close to the end, people get cranky with each other," she said. "But I believe that won’t continue forever. People will find that the wounds are not so deep they can’t be healed."

As with previous contests, the Pennsylvania results did little to change the math in terms of superdelegates. In interviews, superdelegates supporting Clinton seized on the Pennsylvania results to push for the contest to continue, while Obama backers often focused on the need for party unity. And some expressed trepidation about their newfound power.

One superdelegate, David E. Price, was a member of the Hunt Commission, which created the superdelegate system in the early 1980s. Now a representative from North Carolina who has endorsed Sen. Obama, Price he says he notices "a certain deterioration out there of the climate, but I don’t want to exaggerate that." Because the views of Clinton and Obama are so close on most issues, "it is tempting to pick each other’s words apart and concentrate on lesser matters," Price said. "That does become irritating and wear on voters. But we will get past it."

What appears to worry him more is the idea, advanced by some of Clinton’s advisers and supporters, that the superdelegates have the authority to be the final arbiters in the Clinton-Obama race. Though the Pennsylvania vote was "a game continuer and not a game changer," Price said, and voting must continue in states that have not yet conducted their nominating contests, the superdelegates should intervene afterward only in extraordinary circumstances that do not now exist.


"The fact is that the unpledged delegate group was added not to be kingmakers or queenmakers but simply to give each state a few extra slots without having to sign in blood for a presidential candidate or run against their own constituents," he said. "I don’t think anyone thought this would be the decisive voting bloc, let alone overturn a popular verdict."

The biggest well of superdelegates is in Congress. There, Democrats in the House and Senate seemed resigned to the likelihood that the nominating contest would stretch on at least to June.

They sought to play down the potential damage to the party of an extended nominating fight. And they emphasized the enthusiasm shown by voters and said they believed that Democrats fervently committed to one candidate or the other would rally to the eventual nominee once the contrast is shown between any Democrat and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee.

Yet there was a clear sentiment that the conduct of the remainder of the Democratic campaign and the way it is resolved would be crucial.

"The way the loser loses," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, who is close to both candidates but has made no endorsement, "will determine whether the winner wins in November."


The Democrats’ national chairman, Howard Dean, told The Financial Times in an article on Friday: "I think the race is going to come down to the perception in the last six or eight races of who the best opponent for McCain will be. I do not think in the long run it will come down to the popular vote or anything else."

Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, another publicly neutral superdelegate, said he was continuing to hold the opinion that the nominating contest would take care of itself.


"I still say it will never get to the superdelegates," said Harkin, who once ran for president himself. "Within 10 days of the last primary, one or the other will drop out."

Harkin was among those who were skeptical of the claim that disheartened supporters of Obama or Clinton would abandon the party if their choice lost and possibly back McCain. "That’s now," Harkin said. "Two months later, three months later, of course they are all going to be on board. Emotions run high in primaries, but time heals all wounds and political wounds tend to heal faster."

Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, a strong backer of Obama, said she believed the thousands of new voters being drawn into the primary process would coalesce around the Democratic nominee once the candidates and the party begin to define McCain better on issues like the war and the economy.

"I think that will turn the tide for the people who are going in that direction," she said of those saying they could abandon the winner. "We have a job to do, and shame on us if we don’t create that definition," she said of the distinctions between the Democratic nominee and McCain.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, another Obama backer, also noted the enthusiasm, particularly among young voters, that he had witnessed when campaigning for Obama. He said that zeal should end up being "enormously constructive and valuable and helpful."

Rep. John Tanner of Tennessee gave Clinton his superdelegate support on Wednesday after the Pennsylvania results, though he said the current economic and political climate would seem to favor either Democrat over McCain in November.

"But I think she presents the most pragmatic view of our problems," he said. "You can talk all you want, have all the rhetoric you want about how it ought to be, but we have got to have somebody who is a pragmatist: What is possible? How is it possible to reverse the financial ruination occurring before our very eyes?"

Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, who has announced no preference in the race so far, said he believed the contest was only strengthening the nominee.


"I would prefer the issue be resolved so we had a nominee and not give John McCain the opportunity to put together his base," Waxman said. "But I think our nominee will be stronger as the result of this fight."

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