Image: Sen. Hillary Rodham
Charles Dharapak  /  AP
Hillary Clinton greets her fans during a rally at Terry Sanford High School in Fayetteville, N.C., on Thursday.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 3/28/2008 11:57:06 AM ET 2008-03-28T15:57:06

Thou shall not covet thy rival’s delegates.

It’s a nice a idea, but far from political reality, much less a commandment.

Delegates aren’t off limits, at least not like your neighbor’s wife.

They’re free to be coveted and wooed. And they’re not under any obligation to stay monogamous.

Superdelegates (the elected officials such as senators who have an automatic vote at the convention) and pledged delegates (those chosen in primaries and caucuses) are in fact, free to shop around.

And Sen. Hillary Clinton was correct this week when she pointed that out.

Under Democratic National Committee rules, even the pledged delegates, or as she called them “so-called pledged delegates,” are legally free to vote for whomever they choose at the convention.

And it is a very long time — five months — between now and the opening of the convention.

“At the convention, while it is assumed that the delegate will cast their vote for the candidate they are publicly pledged to, it is not required,” a DNC fact sheet says. The party’s delegate selection rules say that delegates ought to “in good conscience reflect the sentiments of those who elected them.”

Chosen for their loyalty
But any suggestion that pledged delegates might forsake their candidate seems a long-shot possibility.

Each campaign recruits loyal and reliable people to be on their slates of delegates. The Obama pledged delegates are Obama true believers; likewise the Clinton pledged delegates.

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The pledged delegates are politically active people — state legislators, past and future candidates for local office, politically connected lawyers, labor union operatives — for whom there'd be hell to pay if they reneged on their pledge.

State Rep. Jolene Ivey, an Obama pledged delegate from Maryland, said Clinton has not contacted her to ask her to switch.

And if Clinton did call her, or show up on her front door to persuade her to switch? “What words would I use to say ‘no’? I’d thank her for calling, but I’d make it very clear that my allegiance is to Sen. Obama,” said Ivey.

Video: Clinton's lessons from childhood “It is hard for me to imagine a scenario in which I’d agree to something like that. Only if Sen. Obama asked me to do it,” said Ivey. “And I can’t imagine why the person who is in first place would ask me to vote for the person who’s in second place.” If there were an effort to woo Obama delegates “it sounds pretty slimy to me.”

Loyalty to Obama
“I am with Obama to the day I die!!” emphatically e-mailed New Hampshire Obama delegate Ann McLane Kuster. “We just had 60 New Hampshire Women for Obama for a meeting at my office all FIRED UP and READY TO GO!! We are organizing a bus trip to Pennsylvania for April 12, phone banks all across New Hampshire, postcard house parties…”

As for Clinton, Kuster said, “she is dreaming!”

A Clinton delegate from Maryland, state Rep. Ben Barnes said, “I don’t think the Hillary campaign is trying to woo pledged delegates from Obama. What she is doing is trying to point out that these rules are messy all over the place.” For instance, some states allow independents and Republicans to vote in Democratic primaries, but some do not.

“I’ve had Obama people say to me, ‘this shouldn’t be decided by the superdelegates,’ but then I say, ‘well, what about the Florida primary not counting?’ We can’t pick and choose which party rules to support based on which rule will benefit our candidate.”

In any event, Barnes said, “I wouldn’t expect pledged delegates to switch between now and the convention. You have to stand behind the commitments you’ve made. And I continue to believe that Hillary Clinton will be the best president and the best candidate.”

There’s a logic for Clinton to remind people of the possibility that future events might cause some pledged delegates to re-think their commitments.

Lagging by about 120 in the delegate count, with about 580 delegates still to be chosen in upcoming primaries, it is in Clinton’s interest to remind Democrats that the unexpected has already played a role in this race and might do so again.

Video: Meet a superdelegate

That New Hampshire surprise
After all, who on the night of Jan. 7 expected Clinton to win New Hampshire?

Yet the next day she did win it.

And in the final hours leading up to her resounding victories in the Ohio and Texas primaries on March 4, some Obama-phile pundits were telling Clinton to give up and quit the race. She didn't quit and she's still only about 120 delegates behind.

But Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist who served as spokesman for the John Edwards campaign but is not working for either the Obama or Clinton campaigns, is skeptical of Clinton’s concept of pledged delegates switching at the convention.

“With all due respect, to even suggest it is comical. Realistically, it has no chance of happening,” Kofinis said.

Superdelegate samplingSo why would Clinton float this concept?

It goes, said Kofinis, back to the elected officials and party elders — governors, House members, DNC members, and former leaders such as Al Gore — who under Democratic Party rules are not elected by the voters but still have an automatic vote at the convention.

Unless some of the pledged delegates shift their loyalties before the convention, it will likely be the superdelegates whose votes will give either Clinton or Obama the final number they need to secure the nomination. That could be a lonely and perhaps perilous position for the superdelegates to be in.

For the Clinton campaign, “their strategy, it appears, is to create some basis so that superdelegates would feel less reluctant about overturning the will of pledged delegates, which Obama is likely to have the lead in, by suggesting that all delegates are up for grabs,” he said.

“The problem is that it’s just not a realistic argument.”

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