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Associated Press
Presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., addresses a campaign rally Tuesday in Madison, Wis., following three wins in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.
•Obama sweeps 3 Potomac states: Page 7A

Democrats' dilemma

Superdelegates sweating out role as contest remains close


WASHINGTON – Dan Parker is a Hillary Rodham Clinton man, no matter what.

The chairman of the State Democratic Party will go to the national convention in August committed to Clinton even if Barack Obama wins Indiana’s May primary.

Joe Andrew, like Parker, a Hoosier superdelegate to the Democrats’ nominating convention, says his commitment to Clinton is “profound.”

Nevertheless, if Clinton and Obama head into the August convention with an equal number of delegates from state primaries and Obama has amassed more votes in those primaries, Andrew sounds less wedded to his commitment.

“I want to vote for Hillary Clinton, don’t get me wrong,” said Andrew, a former chairman of the national Democratic Party. “My commitment to her is profound, but I would be troubled if either she or Barack Obama actually became the nominee because superdelegates decided, opposed to actual voters going to the polls and pulling the lever.”

For the first time in more than two decades, Democrats are looking at a political landscape with two candidates who are nearly tied in the number of delegates each has collected from state primaries.

If neither has 2,025 delegates before the August convention or they are tied, the roughly 796 superdelegates would decide the outcome.

What people like Parker, Andrew and the nine or 10 other Hoosier superdelegates have to confront, delegate selection expert Anthony Corrado said, is “should they act as representatives of their state or be independent decision-makers?”

“It’s a very difficult decision,” said Corrado, a political scientist at Colby College in Maine.

He said he’d advise superdelegates to keep their political powder dry and wait until after their own states’ primaries.

That’s what five of the Hoosier superdelegates are doing at the moment.

The state’s superdelegates include Democratic members of Congress, the members of the Democratic National Committee and former national party chairs, such as Andrew, who are from Indiana.

Just one of the five members of Congress has declared his preference – Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., is a prominent Clinton supporter. Reps. Pete Visclosky, D-1st; Joe Donnelly, D-2nd; Brad Ellsworth, D-8th; and Baron Hill, D-9th, are publicly neutral.

One of the other five superdelegates, Democratic National Committee member Connie Thurman, is undeclared.

But three others are Clinton supporters: Parker, Phoebe Crane and former East Chicago Mayor Bob Pastrick. Cordelia Lewis Burks, the state vice chairwoman, backs Obama.

(If Indianapolis elects a Democrat to fill a vacant congressional seat after the death of Rep. Julia Carson, the state will have a 12th superdelegate. In addition, the state has one unpledged add-on, who is similar to a superdelegate. That person has not been named.)

Crane said she’s thought about the position she’d be in if Obama wins Indiana.

But whether she’d change her status as a Clinton delegate: “I’ll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it.”

She said she’s thought about it, “but I don’t feel free to talk about it. It’s a valid point that perhaps the superdelegate should reflect the view of the state. I certainly like Barack Obama a lot, … but I am committed to Hillary Clinton.”

As long as the system exists, Parker said, he will make his choice based on personal conviction, not necessarily how Hoosiers vote. And for him, that personal conviction is that Clinton is the better candidate.

And he’ll try to convince the undeclared superdelegate who isn’t an elected official.

Parker calls Connie Thurman every day. They might talk about lots of politics – she’s a fellow member of the Democratic National Committee – but they always get to one thing:

Has Thurman made up her mind to support Clinton?

Thurman is just one of Indiana’s 750,000 Democrats, but her choice between Clinton and Obama has an outsized importance.

To win the Democratic nomination, Clinton or Obama must collect those 2,025 delegates through state primaries and caucuses and by lining up support from superdelegates.

Unless one candidate captures enough delegates in the remaining primaries, it’s possible Clinton and Obama could arrive at the Democratic convention in August with neither claiming 2,025 delegates.

That’s why both campaigns are spending lots of time trying to woo the superdelegates, and it’s why Parker calls Thurman every day.

“We just talk about the race and try to make it real local, how the race will impact Indiana elections,” Parker said, refusing to give more details about his sales pitch.

Superdelegates are a state’s Democratic members of Congress; the state’s members of the Democratic National Convention; one chosen by the state party chair; any former Democratic presidents or vice presidents from that state; and any former national party chair from that state.

Burks said she hasn’t tried to lobby Thurman, even though they are good friends. Burks also said she spent time with Bayh this week, but he didn’t try to persuade her to jump to the Clinton camp; there is no penalty for superdelegates who change their minds after publicly endorsing a candidate.

Bayh has not taken Corrado’s advice about not getting ahead of the state’s Democratic voters.

He declared his support for Clinton last fall.

An example of politicians taking the route Corrado prefers is California’s two Democratic senators, Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein.

They said they would pledge themselves to the winner of the state’s primary. Clinton won, so those two superdelegates moved into her column.

Superdelegates were added to the Democratic Party’s nominating process after the 1980 election to “introduce flexibility, deliberation and peer review at the convention,” University of Buffalo political scientist Franco Mattei said.

Even though superdelegates have existed for more than two decades – six presidential elections – they have never been a decisive factor in the nomination, Mattei said.

Until this year.

Now, with Clinton and Obama nearly tied in the number of delegates they have secured through a primary or caucus, the superdelegates may decide whether the Democratic Party nominates Clinton or Obama.

For Andrew, who headed the Indiana Democratic Party in the 1990s before being appointed national party chairman in 1999, the superdelegate system is a potential tragedy.

“I think we could lose the presidency over this,” he said, if the superdelegates end up being the deciding factor in the party’s nominee.

“Anything that looks like a backroom deal,” Andrew said, would give the GOP nominee ammunition to accuse the Democratic Party of being non-democratic. “The worst thing that could happen is the superdelegates’ votes actually count.”

Andrew thinks the superdelegates ought to promise to vote for the candidate who has accumulated the most votes – not delegates – in the primaries.

Andrew’s fear isn’t likely to materialize, one analyst said.

“Clinton’s advantage among superdelegates is enough to break a tie among pledged delegates,” said Charlie Cook, publisher of the non-partisan Cook Political Report, “but if Obama clearly wins among pledged delegates, I doubt that you would see superdelegates overturn that victory.

“The superdelegates are politicians, either elected or party officials,” he said. “They will not want to be seen as overturning the will of a clear majority of voters. They would be happy to break a tie, but not overturn a win.”