Democrats divided over lengthy race

Many superdelegates don't object to a protracted process. Others want it over before the convention.

April 24, 2008|Janet Hook, Mark Z. Barabak and James Hohmann | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Hillary Rodham Clinton's Pennsylvania win has bought her time -- but not much -- to make her case to the Democratic Party's superdelegates, many of whom expressed a strong desire Wednesday to end the nominating contest once the final votes are cast.

Though few seem eager to use their power to call a halt to the presidential race -- and many said they welcomed the continued balloting -- a number of party leaders and other activists sent a clear signal that they want the fight over well before the Democratic convention in August.

"If June 3 is the last primary, then after June 3 is the time to make a decision," said Wayne Dowdy, chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party and an uncommitted superdelegate.

Blake Johnson, vice chairman of Alaska's Democratic Party, agreed. "After all the states have voted, it'll be time for the superdelegates to make their decision," said Johnson, who is also neutral in the primaries.

Interviews with dozens of superdelegates across the country Wednesday turned up a growing acceptance that the intramural contest between Sen. Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois will probably continue for six more weeks. The primary season ends June 3 in Montana and South Dakota.

Many viewed the ongoing race as a good thing, saying it would toughen the eventual nominee and give Democrats in more states a chance to organize and get involved in the campaign. The next big contests are May 6 in North Carolina and Indiana.

"What happened in Pennsylvania, and what is going to happen in North Carolina and Indiana, is voter registration of Democrats is going up," said Lauren Glover, vice chairwoman of the Maryland Democratic Party. "If those votes didn't matter, it would be difficult for state parties to increase voter rolls."

Though some Democrats cringed at some of the attacks leveled over the last month, several said it was better to expose the candidates' weaknesses now rather than wait until fall.

Many of the superdelegates interviewed said they believed any hard feelings within the party would be forgiven and forgotten long before November, once the general election fight against Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the likely GOP nominee, is truly joined.

"Most families -- loving families even -- have fights," said Robert Rankin of Carson, a leader of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party. "As they realize what the greater good is, most families come together. Whatever happens, [Democrats] will come together. I just believe that."

But others expressed anxiety that the continued scuffling would ultimately weaken the Democratic nominee and hurt party candidates up and down the ballot in November. And there was virtually no support for Clinton's notion to take her fight to the floor of the convention, which begins Aug. 25.

"If the tone of the presidential campaign continues on this negative trajectory, it will create wounds that are hard to heal," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), an uncommitted delegate who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "And it would be a big mistake to have a divisive convention in the full glare of TV lights."

Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, who has been outspoken in urging superdelegates to unify behind a candidate well before the convention, said, "If it all comes together on the 4th of June, when the last thing is over, I don't think lasting damage is done."

But, beyond that, he continued, "you can't have 2 1/2 months of the candidates explaining why the other one is not suited to be president and go into the convention with a divided party. I just don't think you can do that and start [the general election campaign] on Labor Day and expect to win a presidential election that way."

Superdelegates are Democratic Party leaders and elected officials who are free to support whomever they choose. They will almost certainly determine the presidential nominee because neither Obama nor Clinton seems likely to win sufficient delegates at the ballot box to clinch the nomination.

With her victory in Pennsylvania, Clinton made a net gain of eight delegates, leaving Obama with an overall lead of 1,723.5 to 1592.5 delegates, according to the Associated Press. It requires 2,024 delegates to secure the nomination, and there are nine contests remaining. Nearly 90% of the pledged delegates have been allocated.

About 300 superdelegates -- out of 794 total -- remain uncommitted.

Many are keeping a watchful eye on how the candidates perform in the rest of the balloting. Pennsylvania, once viewed as an important bellwether, appeared to have changed few minds.

Obama picked up the endorsement Wednesday of Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry, despite the fact that the state's Democrats voted overwhelmingly for Clinton. (The endorsement had apparently been planned for some time.) Obama also won the backing of Audra Ostergard, associate chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party.

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