Superdelegates' key role in San Francisco

One Democrat privately concedes that ''super'' was not really the best choice for a name. But when the party's leaders decided to strengthen the hand of professional politicians at the Democratic National Convention, they designated a select group of 568 members of Congress, governors, local officeholders, and party officials as ''superdelegates.'' These experienced Democrats, freed from direc-tives of primary voters, are supposed to provide a steady hand and the wisdom gained from past failures.

That theory faces a stiff test next week when Democrats head for San Francisco to nominate their candidate for president, with critics charging that the party establishment has grabbed too much power.

Ever since George McGovern and his youthful antiwar supporters snatched the Democratic 1972 convention away from party regulars, the pros have been struggling to make a comeback. Now they have finally succeeded.

Elected officials will be far more visible at San Francisco's Moscone Center next week than at recent Democratic conventions. Twenty-five US senators, 164 members of the House, and 25 governors, and more than 100 mayors will be among the superdelegates.

In fact, going to the Democratic convention is so much in style for Democratic officeholders that nearly 240 members of Congress are expected, including many who are not official delegates. By contrast, only 37 House members and eight senators turned up as delegates at the 1980 convention. Party officials are predictably pleased.

The presence of ''more political heavyweights might change the tone of this convention,'' says Democratic National Committee spokesman Eugene Russell. ''If you don't involve the captains and the colonels . . . , you have all foot soldiers. You may be (damaging) yourself.''

''It's good for the party, and it's good for us,'' says superdelegate and US Rep. Tony Coelho of California, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. ''You have a bunch of people there who understand the ripple of decisions. . . . A lot of people in the grass roots understand the short term. (But) they don't worry about the long term because that's not their bag.''

For Representative Coelho, whose job is to defend the Democrats' 102-seat advantage in the US House of Representatives, the ripple effect from the convention is important. It could determine whether congressmen are reelected. An early supporter of Walter F. Mondale for the presidency, Coelho once argued to a press breakfast that, from the standpoint of congressional candidates, the former vice-president would be the ''safest'' nominee.

Elected officials ''are entitled to some say with respect to which direction the party goes,'' argues Rep. Gillis Long of Louisiana, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, who has been pushing for years to give members of Congress a bigger role at conventions. ''We have to run for office,'' he says.

Mr. Long credits the congressional expertise for hammering together a platform broad enough to support most of the party without provoking serious fights. The effort was smooth because the preparatory work began 30 months ago within a House Democratic Caucus task force, he says. One of the participants, Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro of New York, secretary of the House Democratic Caucus, chairs the party platform committee.

But while critics welcome input from the party pros, they credit the three campaigns for keeping the peace over tough platform, rules, and credentials questions. And they decry the power shift that gives the superdelegates, about 14 percent of the total, so many votes.

In fact, the superdelegates, technically unpledged, provide Mr. Mondale his margin of victory for the nomination. Of the 568 superdelegates, 371 have sided with the former vice-president, while only 61 are for Hart and 24 for the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, according to a recent United Press International tally.

So, while the electorate gave Mondale only a 38.6 percent of the vote in primaries compared with 36.2 percent for Hart, the party professionals helped magnify that microscopic lead to 52.5 percent of the delegates. Party pros lean so heavily toward the tried-and-true Mondale over the upstart Coloradan that in several states where Hart won primaries, Mondale won the lion's share of superdelegates.

The system does not reflect the voters' wishes, says Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado, who co-chairs the Hart campaign. ''I think it's good to have elected officials involved,'' she says. But as for expectations that ''this will be like the counsel of Solomon,'' she says, the hopes were misplaced. The largest chunk of superdelegates, the 164 House members, were picked by the House Democratic Caucus before the primaries. By far the biggest group, an estimated 70 of those selected, had already committed to Mondale at that time.

''So the notion that these people will help guide the deliberative process of the convention is a fallacy,'' says Jack Quinn, general counsel of the Hart campaign.And it becomes even more questionable, he says, when it becomes a matter of giving ''a proxy for the purpose of selecting a president'' to a group that includes county Democratic chairmen.

Hart forces, who had a powerful ally in Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, won a preliminary victory for the 1988 convention in a rules committee recommendation to cut the number of unpledged party pros by more than half. But supporters of the 14 percent rule are not giving up.Coelho and Long are optimistic that they can keep the superdelegate system intact.

Meanwhile, with the Gallup poll delivering the message that Mondale is running 19 points behind President Reagan while Hart is only 12 points behind, Representative Schoeder sees an ironic hope. ''At some point, the superdelegates might help Hart,'' she says.

''They've all got to start thinking about how they're going to run if the top of the ticket is down 30 points,'' she says of the superdelegates, many of whom have election campaigns of their own in the fall.

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