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Superdelegates unswayed by Clinton's attacks

A cross-section of superdelegates showed that none had been persuaded much by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s attacks on Senator Barack Obama.
/ Source: The New York Times

Throughout their contentious debate on Wednesday, Senator tried again and again to put Senator on the defensive in a pointed attempt, her advisers say, to raise doubts about his electability among a small but powerful audience: the uncommitted superdelegates who will most likely determine the nomination.

Yet despite giving it her best shot in what might have been their final debate, interviews on Thursday with a cross-section of these superdelegates — members of Congress, elected officials and party leaders — showed that none had been persuaded much by her attacks on Mr. Obama’s strength as a potential Democratic nominee, his recent gaffes and his relationships with his former pastor and with a onetime member of the Weather Underground.

In fact, the Obama campaign announced endorsements from two more superdelegates on Thursday, after rolling out three on Wednesday and two others since late last week in what appeared to be a carefully orchestrated show of strength before Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary. Obama advisers said that one of the pickups on Thursday, Councilman Harry Thomas Jr. of the District of Columbia, had initially favored Mrs. Clinton, but Clinton advisers denied that, and a Thomas aide said he had been neutral before Thursday.

No deal-breakers
In interviews, 15 uncommitted superdelegates said they did not believe that recent gaffes by both candidates would carry any particular influence over their final decision. They said they had particularly tired of all the attention, by the Clinton campaign and the news media, on Mr. Obama’s recent comment that some Americans were “bitter” over the economy and chose to “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” as a result.

And if there were some moments of concern reflected in the debate — the talk of Mrs. Clinton’s high unfavorability ratings, Mr. Obama’s flashes of annoyance — they all doubted that those moments would be deal-breakers, either. Instead, most of the superdelegates said they wanted to wait for the results of at least the next major primaries — in Pennsylvania on Tuesday and Indiana and North Carolina two weeks later — before choosing a candidate.

“I feel like we’ve heard a lot about gaffes as they relate to electability, but what really matters to people is how to deal with the economy and create jobs,” said John W. Olsen, an uncommitted superdelegate from Connecticut and president of the there. “I also want to wait and hear from all of the Democrats in the primaries and caucuses who haven’t had a chance to choose and vote yet.”

Clinton advisers acknowledged that they had not seen short-term evidence that their attacks on Mr. Obama were winning over many superdelegates, and they acknowledged that he had picked up more in recent weeks — though she maintained a narrowing overall lead in them. They predicted, however, that the mounting scrutiny of Mr. Obama would lead superdelegates to cool to his candidacy and come to see her as more of a known quantity, battle tested, and shrewd about the best ways to beat the presumptive Republican nominee, Senator , in the fall.

“When it comes to picking a candidate, automatic delegates don’t want to guess about what lies behind Door No. 2, they want to know,” said Phil Singer, a Clinton spokesman. “The debate raised more questions about Senator Obama than have been answered, and that means that automatic delegates are likely to keep their powder dry as the process moves forward.”

In response, an Obama spokesman, Hari Sevugan, said Thursday: “Since Feb. 5, Senator Obama has garnered the support of 80 superdelegates to Senator Clinton’s 5. We’ll let the results of Senator Clinton’s ‘kitchen sink’ strategy speak for themselves.”

Testing so-called value voters
Some Clinton advisers also said that the focus on Mr. Obama’s “guns or religion” comment was a way to put him on the spot with so-called values voters — in part to offset Mrs. Clinton’s baggage in this area. According to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, conducted March 28-April 2 with 1,196 registered voters nationwide, 60 percent of them believe Mrs. Clinton shared the values that most Americans tried to live by, and 34 percent did not. Both Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain fared better, with Mr. Obama performing best — 70 percent said he shared those values, and 21 percent said he did not.

Some of the uncommitted superdelegates interviewed said they were concerned about whether Mr. Obama reflected the values and interests of voters in states that Democrats aim to carry in November or hope to steal from Republicans, like some Southern states that they typically do not win in a general election. Yet they said they had had these concerns for some time — and Wednesday night’s debate had not intensified them.

“Obama argues that he will put more states in play, but I haven’t seen him put the coalitions together as strongly as we need to,” said Joe Turnham, an uncommitted superdelegate who is chairman of the Alabama . (Mr. Obama won the Alabama primary in February; Mr. Turnham has known the Clintons for many years.)

“You have to put together blue-collar workers, veterans, seniors and swing evangelical voters and compete in states like West Virginia, Kentucky, Arkansas, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania,” he added. “I feel like Hillary has shown more strength there.”

Mr. Obama sought to allay concerns about questions of his electability on Thursday. At a campaign stop in Raleigh, N.C., a woman told Mr. Obama that he was “really pummeled during the debate.” She continued, “What is your strategy to beat the Republicans in November?”

“That was the rollout of the Republican campaign against me in November. It happened just a little bit early, but that is what they will do,” Mr. Obama said. “They will try to focus on all these issues that don’t have anything to do with how you are paying your bills at the end of the month. There’s no doubt that I will have to respond sharply and crisply, then pivot to talk about what exactly are we going to do for the economy and what are we going to do about the war in Iraq.”

Until the nominating fight ends, Mr. Obama said, he is “trying to show some restraint.” He added, “I won’t have as much restraint with the Republicans."

Some put off by debate's negativity
Supporters of Mr. Obama have expressed concern about the bitter ferocity of the Democratic race, particularly with Mrs. Clinton and Mr. McCain sounding similar themes of criticism against Mr. Obama. They used Wednesday’s debate as the latest example to superdelegates that the prolonged nominating fight could be damaging to the party.

“And I have to say Senator Clinton looked in her element,” Mr. Obama said, speaking to an audience of North Carolina voters. “She was taking every opportunity to get a dig in there. You know, that’s all right. That’s her right. That’s her right to kind of twist the knife a little bit.”

Indeed, several superdelegates said they had been put off by negative moments in the debate.

“What I’m hearing from voters in this state who have been uncommitted or not solidly behind any candidate is that they are increasingly frustrated with the negativism going on, mostly on her side,” said Patricia Waak, the Colorado state party chairwoman. (Mr. Obama won the Colorado primary in a landslide.)

“In general what I heard this morning was just negative, negative, negative,” Ms. Waak said. “As far as Obama’s comment on guns and religion, mostly what I’ve heard from people in general is, ‘it’s true.’ ”

One superdelegate, Reggie Whitten of Oklahoma, endorsed Mr. Obama on Tuesday because, he said, he believed the candidate needed a new public vote as the Clinton camp was battering him daily over the bitter remark.

“I don’t think all of this divisiveness is helping him, so it was a good time to send a signal of support from a conservative state like Oklahoma that we believe in him,” said Mr. Whitten, a lawyer from a suburb of Oklahoma City.

Jeff Zeleny, George A. Sargia and Marina Stefan contributed reporting.

This article, , originally appeared at The New York Times.