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Democratic primary: Quiet battle for the other delegates

Superdelegates, or party professionals, could play a decisive role in the outcome of the Democratic race.

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"Some of us thought that the convention had become a total reflection of candidate [voter] preferences and it would be healthy to have a group of delegates who could become brokers if the occasion should arise," he adds.

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At the time, no one anticipated that the unpledged delegates would plunge into the pledging process. "But I do think the addition of the so-called superdelegates is a change that has had a desired effect: bringing the elected officials back to the convention," Representative Price says.

On Capitol Hill, the chase after superdelegate support has been unrelenting since summer. So far, 81 members of Congress have endorsed Senator Clinton, 49 have endorsed Senator Obama, and 15 have endorsed former Sen. John Edwards (D) of North Carolina.

"I've had inquires from the different camps, but I'd like to make the decision at the end of the process," says Tom Allen (D) of Maine, who is running for the Senate in 2008. "There's some advantage to being the last to make a decision, if it comes down to that. But it would be better for the country to have it settled earlier."

Rep. Melvin Watt (D) of North Carolina, who has endorsed Mr. Edwards, says he and other superdelegates will continue to assess the race. The advantage of superdelegates is that "generally we're in step with the electorate. We can play that role with less emotion," he says.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) of Arkansas says she'll stay unpledged until the convention. "The American people need to see that they do play a role in this process."

But in no case could the professional delegates recreate the smoky backrooms that produced presidents in the past. "The superdelegates could wind up divided and find it as difficult to come to consensus as the public," says Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

"But they're particularly sensitive to the electoral implications" for other Democratic candidates, he adds. Recent decisions of moderate Democrats, such as Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri and Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska, to endorse Obama, for example, could reflect an assessment of how a Clinton ticket could rile up the GOP base and damage prospects for the rest of the Democratic ticket.

"We bring a knowledge to this selection process," says House majority leader Steny Hoyer, also at the Monitor breakfast Tuesday.

"What we have really done is leavened the process with those who bring the direct views of people elected in a caucus or a primary with those who have had long-term experience for the most part with these candidates," he adds.

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