WASHINGTON — Lacking a clear route to the selection of a Democratic presidential nominee, the party’s uncommitted superdelegates say they are growing increasingly concerned about the risks of a prolonged fight between Senators Hillary Rodham Clintonand Barack Obama, and are perplexed about how to resolve the conflict.
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Interviews with dozens of undecided superdelegates — the elected officials and party leaders who could hold the balance of power for the nomination — found them uncertain about who, if anyone, would step in to fill a leadership vacuum and help guide the contest to a conclusion that would not weaken the Democratic ticket in the general election.
While many superdelegates said they intended to keep their options open as the race continued to play out over the next three months, the interviews suggested that the playing field was tilting slightly toward Mr. Obama in one potentially vital respect. Many of them said that in deciding whom to support, they would adopt what Mr. Obama’s campaign has advocated as the essential principle: reflecting the will of the voters.
Mr. Obama has won more states, a greater share of the popular vote and more pledged delegates than Mrs. Clinton.
‘Seeing that the people have spoken’
A New York Times survey of superdelegates last week found that Mr. Obama had been winning over more of them recently than Mrs. Clinton had, though Mrs. Clinton retained an overall lead among those who have made a choice. Over the past month, according to the survey, Mr. Obama, of Illinois, picked up 54 superdelegates; Mrs. Clinton, of New York, picked up 31.
“If we get to the end and Senator Obama has won more states, has more delegates and more popular vote,” said Representative Jason Altmire, Democrat of Pennsylvania, who is undecided, “I would need some sort of rationale for why at that point any superdelegate would go the other way, seeing that the people have spoken.”
Mr. Altmire said he was repeating an argument that he made to Mrs. Clinton during a session at her house in Washington on Thursday night with uncommitted superdelegates.
The interviews were conducted at a time of rising displays of animosity between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama, with Mrs. Clinton repeatedly arguing that Mr. Obama did not have the foreign policy credentials to stand up to Senator John McCainof Arizona, the likely Republican nominee. Several superdelegates said they were concerned that this could hurt the Democratic Partyin the fall elections and put pressure on some of them to endorse one of the candidates to bring the contest to a quicker conclusion.
“It would be nice to find a way to wrap it up,” said Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who has not committed to either candidate. “If the current trajectory of the debate continues, the divisions will make it more difficult for many of our candidates.”
Looking for an exit strategy
Over all, the interviews with these influential Democrats presents a portrait of a particularly exclusive political community in flux, looking for an exit strategy and hoping they will be relieved of making an excruciating decision that could lose them friends and supporters at home.
“This was everybody’s worse nightmare come to fruition,” said Richard Machacek, an uncommitted superdelegate from Iowa, who said he was struggling over what to do.
In Ohio, Senator Sherrod Brown would seemingly have an easy task. Mrs. Clinton won his state by 10 points. If the nominating fight had to be resolved by party leaders, wouldn’t he side with her? Not necessarily.
“It’s the overall popular vote, it’s the overall delegates, it’s who is bringing energy to the campaign, it’s who has momentum,” Mr. Brown said. “It should be wrapped up before the convention, and I think it will be.”
Representative John P. Murtha, Democrat of Pennsylvania, is not wringing his hands. “I don’t see the problem,” he said. “People complain and criticize each other, and then they always work it out.”
But Eileen Macoll, a Democratic county chairwoman from Washington State, is expecting something different — and not exactly looking forward to it. “I think it’s going to go all the way to the floor,” Ms. Macoll said. “We will take the vote and that will be the nominee. We’re going to see that happen.”
Avoiding a portrayal as party elites
The delegates said they hoped to avoid being portrayed as party elites overturning the will of Democratic voters. They spoke of having some power broker — the names mentioned included Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee; former Vice President Al Gore; and Speaker Nancy Pelosi— step in to forge a deal.
Yet even as some of them pleaded for intervention, they said they were not sure what could be done in a race with two candidates who have so much support.
“It think it has got to be brokered before the convention,” said Bill George, the head of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.in Pennsylvania. “I think there should be a couple of people — maybe Howard Dean and Al Gore, they have some credibility — to do it. Dean should call a meeting, and the two camps should be forced to do it.”
When asked how, Mr. George just laughed. “I just think the two campaigns have to do it,” he said. “I think we lose credibility in America if we let some group come in and do it.”
But David Parker, a superdelegate from North Carolina, was not about to give much deference to any political leader in a contest that was of such consequence. “I don’t think too many people are going to listen to Howard Dean unless he appointed them,” Mr. Parker said. “The D.N.C. is not some monolithic group that is going to move as a body.”
Own judgment vs. voters' will
While the situation is fluid and could change as the voting plays out in Pennsylvania next month and in a series of primaries and caucuses scheduled to last into June, there seems to be intensifying support for the idea that superdelegates should follow the voters rather than for the approach promoted by Mrs. Clinton: that they should exercise their own judgment about who would make the best president.
“If the votes of the superdelegates overturn what’s happened in the elections, it would be harmful to the Democratic Party,” Ms. Pelosi, Democrat of California, said in an interview to be broadcast Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
Members of Congress from states where Mrs. Clinton won or seems likely to win, including Mr. Brown in Ohio and Mr. Altmire in Pennsylvania, made a point of saying they would not feel bound by how their states voted.
“Barack’s impressive showing in our state is attractive to me,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, where Mr. Obama beat Mrs. Clinton two to one in the popular vote last month. “If somehow 200 superdelegates decide this, it will be problematic.”
And there were indications that Mrs. Clinton is facing some questions among the superdelegates about her electability and her potential effect on other Democratic candidates in November.
“A key question to me is how the candidates would affect the down-ballot races,” said Steven Achelpohl, the Democratic state chairman in Nebraska. “I think Obama would have a more positive impact on our other races out here in Nebraska.”
An overall delegate lead for Obama
As of Friday, Mrs. Clinton claimed 254 superdelegates, and the Obama campaign said it had commitments from 213; the figures provided by the campaigns differed somewhat from those tallied by The Times.
Mr. Obama has won 1,367 delegates in primaries and caucuses, compared with 1,224 for Mrs. Clinton, based on a count and projection by The Times. A candidate needs 2,025 votes to win the nomination.
There are 246 superdelegates who are not listed by either campaign as supporters and are viewed as uncommitted. Of those, 107 are from states where Mr. Obama won nominating contests, compared with 83 for Mrs. Clinton. An additional 56 come from states that have not yet voted.
Of the 246 uncommitted superdelegates, 75 are women, 10 are governors and 100 are in Congress. So far, Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton are relatively even when it comes to competing for elected officials; Mrs. Clinton’s overall advantage among superdelegates has come from current and former party officials, reflecting the ties she and her husband have built over the years.
Fighting good for party?
Some argued that the fighting between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama was good for the party, by keeping the candidates in the news and energizing Democrats. “People are just enthusiastic about their candidates — I don’t find any rancor here,” said Jennifer Moore, chairwoman of the Kentucky Democratic Party.
But many called on Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama to tone down the rhetoric, warning that it could polarize the party and damage the eventual nominee in the general election battle.
“I am very concerned about it, and I think they ought to cut it out,” Mr. Achelpohl said. “We need to be unified in the end. Some of these remarks that people are making on both sides are unacceptable.”
The superdelegates said in interviews that more than anything they wanted the contest resolved before Democrats assemble in Denver at the end of August.
“Every day that this continues, people can surmise that this is going to the convention in Colorado and it could be decided by the superdelegates,” said Gov. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, the head of the Democratic Governors Association. “There is not a superdelegate that I have spoken to who wants that to happen.”
Farhana Hossain contributed reporting.
Copyright © 2013 The New York Times