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Proper role of superdelegates debated

First-term Rep. Carol Shea-Porter supports Obama for the presidential nomination, even though her New Hampshire constituents voted for Clinton.
/ Source: The Associated Press

First-term Rep. Carol Shea-Porter supports Sen. Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination, even though her New Hampshire constituents voted for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"It came to a virtual draw in our state" in last month's primary, she says of the mismatch in positions. "I think it's a moot question."

In her case, perhaps so. But Shea-Porter is not alone, and increasingly in the close Democratic race, the political intentions of delegates picked outside the primaries and caucuses are cause for controversy.

An Associated Press review of lawmakers and governors who are superdelegates to the Democratic National Convention turned up three dozen cases in which they hold positions contrary to the expressed will of their own constituents.

Advantage Clinton
Based solely on the numbers, Obama is disadvantaged.

There are 21 governors and members of Congress who support Clinton although their states or districts voted for Obama in primaries or caucuses. Two are from the former first lady's home state of New York.

There are 14 elected superdelegates for Obama in districts whose constituents went for Clinton, including the governor, both senators and one congressman from Massachusetts.

Obama would also benefit if uncommitted superdelegates followed the voters.

The AP review shows 33 elected officials who are superdelegates and publicly uncommitted in the presidential race, even though their constituents went for Obama. Another 24 are neutral despite their voters siding with Clinton.

Judgement vs. constituency
For some, the difference can be a cause for concern.

"You've got to represent the wishes of your constituency," Rep. David Scott of Georgia said recently, explaining why he was dropping his allegiance to Clinton after Obama gained 80 percent of the vote in his district.

For others, it plainly makes little difference. Massachusetts Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and John Kerry have been aggressive supporters of Obama, both before and after Clinton won the primary in their states.

The uncommitted remain that way for a variety of reasons.

Rep. Tom Allen of Maine, running for the Senate, represents a district that Obama won in the state's caucuses. Yet he is a longtime acquaintance of former President Clinton. He's staying neutral in the presidential race, hoping to maximize his own support in the Senate campaign.

Others who are uncommitted say they want voters, not the party bosses, to pick the nominee.

"Let's hope and pray that the enthusiasm that we see in these elections ... someone will emerge as a winner and be out far enough that the superdelegates won't matter," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said recently.

"I don't think it was ever intended that superdelegates would overturn the verdict, the decision of the American people," she added. Obama won her district, as he did the one held by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, also uncommitted. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, a member of the leadership whose congressional district sided with Obama, is neutral as well. He's from Obama's home state of Illinois, but worked in Bill Clinton's White House.

Freedom of choice
Under Democratic Party rules, superdelegates are not picked in primaries or caucuses. Elected officials and party leaders, they are free to support the candidate of their choice.

Inevitably, that gives rise to a debate over their proper role that is part theoretical, part elementary politics.

"It raises the age old political question. Are we elected to monitor where our constituents are ... or are we to use our best judgment to do what's in the best interests of our constituents," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, a Clinton supporter even though Obama won his district.

Unlike Scott, who says his job is to represent his constituents, Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina says the job of a superdelegate is to exercise best judgment for the country as a whole.

"We ought to be doing the nation's business when we go to the floor of the House to vote," he said in a recent interview, adding that the situation is the same on the floor of the convention.

Still, in an enterprise as political as picking a presidential candidate, pressure is inevitable.

"If there is pressure, it would be coming from their constituents," says Rep. Sanford Bishop of Georgia, co-chairman of Obama's campaign in the state.

But the candidates and their campaigns are hardly above a little jockeying in public.

"My strong belief is that if we end up with the most states and the most pledged delegates, and the most voters in the country, then it would be problematic for political insiders to overturn the judgment of the voters," Obama said recently.

Clinton, who has won fewer states than Obama, argued that superdelegates should make up their own minds.

"Superdelegates are by design supposed to exercise independent judgment," she said. "If Senator Obama and his campaign continue to push this position, which is to the contrary of what the definition of superdelegates has historically been, I will look forward to receiving the support of Senator Kerry and Senator Kennedy."