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Clinton, Obama Wrangle for Super Delegate Support

Beyond winning the popular vote in Tuesday’s US primaries, the key to securing a party’s nomination is a candidate’s ability to win enough support from party delegates to gain the nomination. On the Republican side, John McCain did just that on Tuesday with victories in Ohio, Texas, Vermont, and Rhode Island to exceed the 1,191 Republican delegate votes needed to capture his party’s endorsement.

Among Democrats this year, Tuesday’s mixed results indicate that the process will be longer and more complicated because the margins separating candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are too close to call at this point in the race. If it turns out that by the end of the primary season, neither gets the 2,025 delegate total needed to win, competition will continue, with balloting on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado in late August.

What are known as super delegates may play a critical role in determining the Democratic nominee. Of the 50 states holding primaries or caucuses, only Texas, which voted yesterday, holds both a primary and a caucus. University of Maryland communications professor Shawn Parry-Giles explains that with Senator Clinton staying in the race, the Democratic super delegates will become more noticed and their importance will increase.

“The super delegates have been until this election something that’s not really talked about a lot. It’s been part of the process after 1972, and it roots back in the notion that there’s always some unease about whether the American people will get it right. These are the party officials that hold special prominence given that right to possess these delegate positions. But it’s becoming more controversial, not because that it’s something new, but because that it may make a difference in what happens in the outcome of the election,” she notes.

Unlike standard party delegates, the super delegates that have emerged from state primary elections and caucuses are not formally committed to cast their nominating votes for any particular candidate. They can shift their allegiances from Senator Clinton to Senator Obama or vice versa, and in the event of a brokered convention, they are less restricted than standard delegates in the early balloting for a nominee. Professor Parry-Giles, who heads Maryland University’s Center for Political Communications and Civic Leadership, says that super delegates will be watched closely at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

“If by chance Senator Clinton were behind with the popular vote in the delegate count, I think there’s going to be a lot of scrutiny on the super delegates to vote the way of the popular vote,” she says.

In late February, long-time Clinton ally and icon of the American civil rights movement, Georgia Congressman John Lewis, a super delegate who is African-American, announced he was shifting his delegate support to Senator Obama. Professor Parry-Giles says she expects other super delegates to switch their allegiances as primary and caucus results begin to favor one candidate or another. She says pressure from districts where Senator Obama’s popularity is running high may prompt more defections in other states away from Hillary Clinton like the recent transformation of Congressman Lewis.

“I think there’s going to be more pressure for those from Texas to switch over and support Barack Obama, so it’s going to raise the intensity of whether or not she can sustain the campaign into Pennsylvania. But I think a lot depends on the margins of victory,” she said.

Hillary Clinton’s March 4 victories in the Ohio, Texas, and Rhode Island primaries may have helped her narrow Senator Obama’s delegate lead. But the battle for the Democratic nomination will move on to the state of Pennsylvania on April 22. Obama and Clinton will campaign for the support of 74 Pennsylvania delegates, 27 of whom are party super delegates.