updated 1/23/2004 1:31:44 PM ET 2004-01-23T18:31:44

Dick Gephardt, who abandoned his bid for the presidency, has freed his Democratic convention delegates to back another candidate although the Missouri congressman isn’t ready to signal his choice.

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After a poor fourth-place showing in the Iowa caucuses, Gephardt quit the race on Tuesday, leaving a field of seven candidates. He indicated that he would not endorse any of his rivals before Feb. 3, when Missouri and six other states hold early contests.

“He just wants the process to go forward as it should without giving undue influence to another candidate,” Missouri campaign director Jason Norton said Friday. “He wants Missourians to have an opportunity to hear from the candidates themselves, being that most of them have not played here; Missourians don’t have quite the exposure to candidates that other states on Feb. 3 have had.”

Last count: 27 superdelegates
Norton said Gephardt has spoken with several Democratic “superdelegates” — elected officials and other Democratic leaders who will help nominate a candidate at this summer’s convention — including Missouri Gov. Bob Holden and members of Congress. According to the latest Associated Press survey, Gephardt had the support of 27 superdelegates.

“He’s encouraged them to go with who they want to be for as well as telling staff that, and he’s asked Missouri voters to vote for a candidate,” Norton said.

In addition to the superdelegates, Missouri has 74 pledged delegates, more than Iowa and New Hampshire combined, who will be allocated on Feb. 3.

Norton said that he and other top Missouri advisers and Gephardt alumni have not decided whether to get behind another candidate. Democratic rival Wesley Clark said Thursday that 39 former Gephardt aides, mostly political and field organizers from Iowa, had joined his campaign.

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