One delegate, one vote doesn't apply to them. These prominent Democrats can name additional superdelegates, giving them control over multiple convention votes, and that could be the difference in a race that may not be decided until the August convention.
The clout of the nearly 800 superdelegates is unprecedented in this year's race because neither Obama nor Clinton can clinch the nomination with only the delegates won in state primaries and caucuses. Largely overlooked in the arcane process, though, is the power of a select few to complete the superdelegate ranks by naming 76 newbies, and Clinton and Obama are fighting hard over every one of those from state conventions to back rooms.
Separated by fewer than 140 delegates, both candidates are lobbying the hundreds of known superdelegates, employing family, friends and influential surrogates to woo the governors, lawmakers and other party leaders. Some are more important than others.
"They basically are gifts"
Consider Art Torres, chairman of the California Democratic Party. He remains uncommitted, yet he could be the most powerful superdelegate of all. Torres gets to name five additional superdelegates, giving him control over six votes at the national convention this summer.
"I am the super of supers!" Torres proclaims with a laugh.
He and other state party chairmen will appoint most of the additional 76, known in Democratic ranks as "unpledged add-ons."
"They basically are gifts to the state party chairs," Harold Ickes, a chief strategist for Clinton, said of the additional superdelegates.
The additional delegates represent a lot of votes in a race this tight, and neither Obama nor Clinton has really capitalized so far. Only 20 of the party's 56 state and territory chairmen have endorsed a candidate, according to surveys of superdelegates by The Associated Press. Obama has 12 endorsements, Clinton eight.
The candidates also have split endorsements from Democratic governors, who often control state party matters. Both have 10 gubernatorial endorsements.
Superdelegates can vote for whomever they choose at the party's convention this August in Denver, regardless of the results in primaries and caucuses. In all, there will be nearly 800 superdelegates, including the 76 extras.
Clinton has been leading in superdelegate endorsements since before the first primary, but Obama has gained ground in the past month and a half. The latest AP tally: Clinton, 250; Obama, 220. Obama has won more pledged delegates in primaries and caucuses, giving him the overall delegate lead, 1,634 to 1,500. Needed to win the nomination: 2,024.
The Associated Press and NBC news conduct separate delegate counts. NBC's national delegate count stands at 1,507 for Clinton and 1,640 for Obama.
The 76 "add-ons" are doled out to each state based on population and Democratic voting strength. Every state but Florida and Michigan, which were penalized for holding early primaries, gets at least one. California's five are the most.
The extra delegates will be selected at state party conventions and committee meetings throughout the spring. In about half the states, including California, Georgia and Ohio, they must be chosen from lists compiled by the state party chairmen. If the chairmen list only one person for each slot, they effectively name the extra delegates.
In other states the additional delegates can be nominated from the floor of the convention or by simply applying, turning mundane state party gatherings into spirited debates about the presidential candidates.
Alabama's extra delegate was decided by six votes on March 1, when Obama backer and labor leader Stewart Burkhalter was selected at a meeting of the state party's executive committee. Burkhalter said he worked with the Obama campaign to get the nod.
In past years, states used their extra delegates to reward elected officials, donors or labor leaders, or to achieve racial balance in their delegations. This year, the battle for the extra delegates is one of many fronts in a historic fight for the Democratic nomination.
Aides to both campaigns say they are wading into local politics to try to make sure the new delegates are amenable to their candidate.
Some state party chairmen will consult governors or senators when making their choice; others will simply pick like-minded delegates.
That's what Wyoming Democratic Chairman John Millin plans to do when he selects the state's extra delegate in May. Millin, who has endorsed Obama, said he plans to choose another Obama supporter for the spot, though he hopes their votes are not decisive.
"The two votes that I get are frankly two more votes than I really want at the national convention," Millin said. "The party as a whole needs to wrap this up soon after the primaries. I would like to see the decision made long before we get to Denver."
In California, Torres has come up with a diplomatic way to select his five delegates. He said he plans to award them in proportion to the vote in California's Democratic primary. Clinton received about 52 percent of the vote, so she gets three; Obama got 43 percent of the vote, so he gets two.
Torres said he will also use the slots to help meet the state's affirmative action goals.
"I want to take a delegation to the convention that reflects the diversity of California," Torres said.
Both campaigns lobbied Oklahoma Democratic Chairman Ivan Holmes before he picked the state's extra delegate in February. It didn't work.
Holmes, who hasn't endorsed Clinton or Obama, said he selected another undecided superdelegate, the state party's chief fundraiser, Reggie Whitten.
"I had all kinds of people wanting to do this, and Reggie never asked me," Holmes said.
Holmes said he originally backed former Sen. John Edwards, believing he would do well in Oklahoma, perhaps providing coattails for local candidates. He said he has yet to see that trait in Obama or Clinton.
"Obama brings young people into the party that we haven't had before, and Hillary brings in a lot of independent women," Holmes said. "Unfortunately, the polls show that neither of them are going to win Oklahoma."