Sen., Barack Obama, D-Ill.
Jim Cole  /  AP
Presidential hopeful Sen., Barack Obama, D-Ill., has already picked up over 20 superdelegates with a half year to go before the first primary votes are cast.
updated 5/30/2007 2:05:01 PM ET 2007-05-30T18:05:01

It's more than half a year - and a few snowstorms - until the first votes in Iowa, yet Democratic presidential hopefuls have already captured some of the delegates critical to winning the nomination.

Not just any delegates - "superdelegates," the party's top echelon of elected officials who can back a candidate at any time no matter what the calendar, caucus-goer or primary voter says. Candidates have been pursuing endorsements from Democratic governors and members of Congress, knowing these individuals will have a direct say in choosing the party's nominee.

The 235 Democratic House members and nonvoting representatives, 49 senators, the District of Columbia's two "shadow senators" and 28 governors total 314 - about 14 percent of the 2,182 delegates a candidate will need to secure the party's presidential nomination at next year's national convention in Denver.

Aggressive pursuit
Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, the Democratic front-runners, have established sophisticated "whip" operations to woo undecided colleagues. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards has engaged the talents of his campaign manager, a former House Democratic whip, to court the uncommitted.

With eight months to go before voters begin choosing delegates through the primary process, many Democrats view the early accumulation of superdelegates as savvy planning for the future. Unfortunately for the presidential hopefuls, superdelegates can be fair-weather allies who aren't formally bound to any particular candidate and can shift their loyalties at will.

Phil McNamara, director of delegate selection for the Democratic National Committee, put it this way: "These people are politicians. In the end, they'll support whomever is the nominee and they'll still get to go to the convention."

Even so, the candidates are all pursuing the support of superdelegates, making personal appeals and enlisting the help of colleagues.

Early endorsements more valuable
Clinton has mounted the most aggressive program to court superdelegates, winning endorsements from 37 so far, including three Senate colleagues and the governors of Maryland, New Jersey and New York. She's even deputized several House members as "whips" to woo uncommitted colleagues. The group includes Ohio Rep. Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, and New York Reps. Nita Lowey and Joseph Crowley.

In an interview, Crowley said the effort has morphed a bit since it began in March, when the Clinton whips initially tried to target lawmakers from specific states.

"We have an initial strategy of breaking it down into regions, but more often than not it's based on your own relationships with people, that level of comfort," Crowley said.

Part of the sales pitch, Crowley said, is emphasizing that an early endorsement is usually remembered as more meaningful than signing on later in the campaign.

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"You say it's always good to be in early. Clearly, when you have a lot of good candidates out there, regionality comes into play, but she has a broad wingspan beyond New York," he said.

Clinton's lead rival, Obama, tries to frame his campaign as a grass-roots, bottom-up enterprise. But he, too, has been courting endorsements and has picked up 22, including his Illinois Senate colleague Dick Durbin and the governors of Virginia and Illinois.

The campaign also has its own whip operation, with Alabama Rep. Artur Davis, Illinois Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and Florida Rep. Robert Wexler playing prominent roles.

Superdelegates as 'validators'
In an interview, Wexler said his courtship of undecided House members on Obama's behalf was so intense, "It's almost a joke - but in a nice way."

As an example, Wexler said he had spoken extensively with Rep. Russ Carnahan about Obama before the Missouri Democrat made his endorsement.

"He sought me out and asked questions, asked why I got involved so early," Wexler said. "For some members of Congress who are neutral and still making up their minds, it provides a degree of comfort knowing there are other members of Congress, not from Illinois, who are strongly supporting Sen. Obama."

Edwards counts 15 congressional endorsements so far, including several House members from his home state.

Edwards' campaign manager David Bonior, a former Michigan congressman and House Democratic whip, called the endorsement effort "one piece of a very large puzzle." He said he spends considerable time on it, both on the phone and in frequent visits to Capitol Hill, including one Tuesday. He also relies on help from several members who have already endorsed Edwards, including Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak, South Dakota Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and Texas Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson.

"These people are validators who are telling voters that John Edwards is a great candidate to be president," Bonior said. "When people agree to endorse you, it's very much what they're saying."

Among the other Democratic candidates, Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd has eight superdelegates, including all the House Democrats from his home state. Delaware Sen. Joe Biden has one so far: his home state colleague in the Senate, Tom Carper.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who served 15 years in the House, has won endorsements from New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman and three House members.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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