Democrat hopefuls woo party `elders'. As the Democratic race remains tight, candidates scramble for the support of superdelegates - party leaders who will go to Atlanta with a free hand.

First it was Super Tuesday. Now Democrats are battling over ``superdelegates.'' At stake: 646 superdelegates who will attend the Democratic convention this summer in Atlanta. The superdelegates could hold the balance of power if the presidential campaign remains close. (Michigan could be Gephardt's last stand, Page 3.)

The struggle for superdelegate votes could eventually be hot. Already, Jesse Jackson complains he may not get his fair share.

Superdelegates are party leaders, such as governors, the Speaker of the House, the majority leader in the Senate, some other members of Congress, and distinguished elders who automatically get a seat, and a vote, at the national convention. Jimmy Carter is a superdelegate. So is former Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield. And so are the 363 members of the Democratic National Committee. (The Republicans have no comparable group of delegates.)

With hundreds of votes at stake, candidates are courting superdelegates with all the charm they can muster. Michael Dukakis, the front-runner, makes an average of 10 calls a day to superdelegates. Richard Gephardt's friends in Congress lobby in his behalf. Albert Gore Jr. has won the support of several of his fellow members in the Senate.

But the struggle over superdelegates could threaten party harmony. The Rev. Mr. Jackson, who has only modest superdelegate support, objects that despite his strong performance at the polls, the party leadership remains cool to his bid.

By and large, superdelegates appear as confused as the voters about the current contest. They are widely split among the candidates, with most so far (105) going to Congressman Gephardt. Governor Dukakis is close behind, with an estimated 85. Jackson has about 30, and Paul Simon about 25. Senator Gore's count is not known.

On April 11, House Democrats begin choosing 208 of their members (80 percent of the total) as superdelegates. Senate Democrats select 45 members the following week.

The eventual nominee must round up 2,082 delegates.

Some prominent Democrats have announced their preferences recently. At the time of writing, Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey was expected to endorse Dukakis Wednesday. Earlier in the week Dukakis also obtained the endorsements of Connecticut Gov. William O'Neill and two other senators, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Donald Riegle of Michigan. Louisiana's new governor, Buddy Roemer, has endorsed Gore.

Many superdelegates, however, believe they should remain neutral until after the last primaries in June to maximize the group's clout.

Susan Brophy, who oversees Mr. Dukakis's delegate program, says no effort is being spared to get votes. The Dukakis staff has been working for months to build files on each superdelegate - everything from ``whom they supported in 1984'' to ``what their dogs and cats are named'' - anything that could help the governor win their support.

Dukakis has also developed a ``whip'' system in the House, where congressmen who support him work member to member to win new converts.

Steve Cobble, who oversees Jackson's delegate operation, says there probably won't be a major confrontation over the superdelegates, even if Jackson doesn't get many of those votes.

``We don't want this blown out of proportion,'' he says. But ``there is no question that there are certain aspects of the [super-delegate] rules that act against Jesse Jackson. What Rev. Jackson is saying is, if we are leading in the popular vote, it would not be just for superdelegates to ignore that fact.''

Jackson's campaign manager, Gerald Austin, told reporters last week: ``We're pretty confident that when all the primaries are over, we'll have the most popular votes.'' But he added:

``If we don't wind up with the majority of the delegates, or with the nomination, it will be the first time in history that the nominee will be someone who didn't win the most votes from the people. That raises a lot of interesting questions.''

Democratic rulemakers put the superdelegates into the convention to recognize the importance of the party's leadership. But Elaine Kamarck, who helped write those rules, says it would be a mistake to expect super-delegates to resolve a crisis at a brokered convention.

``If you look at elected officials as a whole, in tough convention settings, what the leaders have done is run for cover,'' Dr. Kamarck says. ``They have not been profiles in courage.''

In 1984, superdelegates got behind Walter Mondale after the primaries and pushed him over the top. But Mr. Mondale had 25 years of party service. He was friends with almost everyone.

``Nobody has that this time,'' Kamarck says. ``None of these candidates has deep roots.''

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