The SUPER-Super Delegates Bear Watching
Call them the bishops of the chess game that has become this epic primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. They can slide across the board at the end of the match to help seal the deal for the candidate who they think can best be their king -- or queen.
According to one count kept by Democratic Party activists -- and counts are complicated by the fact that superdelegates aren't bound by their endorsements -- Clinton has the backing of 246 superdelegates, while Obama has 216, But Obama still leads in pledged delegates won during primaries and caucuses, and it is mathematically nearly impossible for Clinton to overtake him in that category. Plus, Obama has been closing the superdelegate gap rapidly. The Bloomberg news service says Obama actually holds a slender lead over Clinton among elected officials (not superdelegates as a whole) of 99-96. That's a huge turnaround. Just four months ago, Clinton had a commanding lead of 91-43 in that group, probably the most significant voting bloc of superdelegates.
That leaves 331 undeclared superdelegates, who will ultimately decide the outcome of the race since neither Obama or Clinton can get to the magic 2,025 delegate number needed to win without them. But not all of these superdelegates, which are members of Congress, governors, former presidents and party officials, are equal in the influence game. Note the political swirl, for instance, made by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's endorsement of Obama. Part of his major-league endorsement was intended as a signal to superdelegates that it's time to fall in line and for the party to start aiming its sights on GOP nominee-in-waiting John McCain. The same is true of former House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman and 9/11 commission co-chairman Lee Hamilton's endorsement of Obama this week.
Some other big-name undeclared superdels may also make an endorsement before the outcome becomes more clear, trying to sway others. If most of these bishops plump for one candidate, they maypropel lesser players in the party hierarchy to follow.
Here are the some super delegeates I'm watching closely:
Sen. Harry Reid, Nev., Senate majority leader. He's in a tough spot having to deal with both Clinton and Obama in the Senate.
Sen. Joe Biden, Del., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. His endorsement will bolster the national security credentials of whomever he picks, as Hamilton's does for Obama.
Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa. chairman of the Agriculture Committee and sage of the Midwest.
Former Sen. George Mitchell, Maine. He's done party favors for many superdels and they often heed his requests. Mitchell has been close to the Clintons for years, having helped Bill Clinton enormously in his first term.
Gov. Bill Ritter, Colo. He's important because he represents a state that once leaned heavily Republican but is now trending Democratic and will be a general election battleground.
The last two are obvious. Former Vice President Al Gore and former President Jimmy Carter. Carter is already hinting he's going for Obama. Gore, who probably carries more weight than Carter with most party regulars, is talked about as a potential broker if the deadlock persists in coming months, though it's a job he says he doesn't particularly want. There's plenty of residual tension and grudges between Gore and the Clintons, and that could be an element in his ultimate choice, especially if he chooses earlier in the game when the stakes are still high for both Obama and Clinton.