The Superdelegate Sweepstakes

Last weekend, Bill Clinton's temporarily cool façade once again cracked, underscoring the pressure the Democratic candidates and their supporters face as the increasingly contentious primary battle drags on with no resolution in sight. In a meeting with several California superdelegates, many of them still uncommitted, Clinton grew angry when Rachel Binah, a Hillary supporter from Northern California, told him she was sorry to hear James Carville call former Clinton cabinet member Bill Richardson "Judas Iscariot" after learning of Richardson's decision to endorse Barack Obama. The episode, which was first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, highlights the enormous power the superdelegates wield and the stress that power is placing on the campaigns trying to woo their support. The former president's flare-up comes at a time when party luminaries are openly expressing frustration with Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean's laissez-faire approach to an internecine fight that many fear could grow even more negative before it produces a nominee.

Steve Ybarra, a California superdelegate (and head of the voting-rights committee of the DNC's Hispanic Caucus) was on hand for the meeting in which Clinton lost his temper. Ybarra tells NEWSWEEK that news reports calling it a "tirade" and a "meltdown" are exaggerated, though he did acknowledge that Clinton, an old friend, "was a little bit upset that Rachel got in his face over Carville." Ybarra said Clinton wasn't yelling, but he implied the former president was lecturing. "Have you ever seen those Charlie Brown commercials [where] he's talking to the adults and they all go wah, wah, wah?" Ybarra asked. Art Torres, chairman of the California state Democratic Party, said he wasn't at the meeting but met with Clinton afterward. "He was upset he got upset with Rachel," Torres said, adding that Binah's question about Carville bothered the former president because he feels generally frustrated "with Governor Richardson, the process, and people trying to stop this campaign." Clinton also vented to Torres about the fact that so many states hold caucuses instead of primaries. "He was indicating they had over 200 affidavits from Texas caucuses over irregularities," said Torres, who is an uncommitted delegate. "We talked about what impact caucuses have and whether they're a true reflection of the electorate."

The Clinton camp can be forgiven for feeling a bit beleaguered. Earlier this week, Obama won his second endorsement from a female senator when Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota announced she is backing him. Klobuchar, who like Obama has taken care to say Clinton should stay in the race as long as she wants to, says she sees no reason why the race for the nomination can't be wrapped up by June. "I'm not sure we're going to find out that much more between June and August," Klobuchar said, adding that the convention is already scheduled unusually late because of the Olympics—"too late," she said, "for the current situation." On Wednesday, Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a former Clinton administration appointee, also endorsed Obama, as did former Indiana congressman and 9/11 Commission co-chair Lee Hamilton and onetime Montana senator John Melcher.

Despite the string of disappointments, Clinton has made it clear publicly that she isn't going away. After Dean announced last week that he wants to see the primary race wrapped up by July 1, Clinton came out swinging in an interview she sought with The Washington Post, saying, "I have no intention of stopping until we finish what we started and until we see what happens in the next 10 contests and until we resolve Florida and Michigan. And if we don't resolve it, we'll resolve it at the convention—that's what credentials committees are for."
But that scenario is exactly the one many superdelegates hope to avoid—and some of them are blaming Dean for the awkward situation the party finds itself in. Phil Bredesen, the governor of Tennessee, has proposed hosting a meeting in June to push superdelegates to commit to a candidate before the party convenes in Denver in late August. He said he spent last weekend with 12 other governors at a conference in Montana. The consensus? "The party needs to step forward and exercise some leadership," Bredesen said.

There are signs that Dean may be heeding that call. On Wednesday, he met with Florida's Democratic congressional delegation and the state party chair, vowing to make sure they are seated at the convention (The DNC decided to strip Florida and Michigan of their delegates after both states moved their primaries up on the calendar, in defiance of the party's wishes). While it remains true that both candidates will have to sign off on a plan to make that happen, Dean's public pronouncement—and the evidence he offered to back up what he said (the DNC has reserved the Florida delegates hotel rooms in Denver)—seems to have calmed nerves. The move came none too soon. A New York Times story  published Wednesday reported that Karen Thurman, Florida's state chair, could not remember the last time she heard from Dean about working out the dispute.

In a joint statement he released with Thurman after the meeting, Dean said, "We're committed to working with both campaigns to reach a solution as soon as realistically possible." The Clinton campaign released a statement of its own that noted a new Quinnipiac poll showing Obama losing to McCain in Florida and Clinton winning over McCain by only 2. The statement said the poll "reflects the urgent need for Democrats to get behind our effort to count Florida's voters and seat its delegation. Chairman Dean is clearly committed to seating the Florida delegation and we urge Senator Obama to join us in calling on the rules and bylaws committee to make this a reality."

Ron Klein, an uncommitted Florida superdelegate and a Democratic congressman from Boca Raton, said the state's congressional delegation is actively negotiating with both campaigns to work out a mutually acceptable formula for counting Florida's delegates. Klein waved off suggestions that Obama's campaign lacks an incentive to cooperate, saying both candidates recognize how important it is for the party that Florida's voters feel involved. He also maintained that counting the Florida delegates may have less of an impact on the dynamics of the race than people think. Based on the disputed election results in Florida, Clinton only netted 38 more delegates than Obama, he said, a relatively small gain out of the state's total haul of 212 delegates. "You have to make some adjustments because neither candidate campaigned here. And we understand that Senator Clinton had an advantage going into it if nobody campaigned," he said. "But even if you took one extreme, which is one gets 38 more than the other, it's still not that dramatically different [in terms of the overall race]."

While Clinton's operation insists that Florida and Michigan voters be heard, the campaign has dialed back its rhetoric in recent days. The Clinton team Wednesday unveiled a new ad attacking McCain, instead of Obama, on the economy. While it's doubtful that a sudden burst of magnanimity is fueling the change—last week, a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed Hillary Clinton's positive rating had dipped to 37 percent, the lowest it has been since 2001—the shift comes as some superdelegates are growing more restless over the negative campaigning, the possibility of a convention feud and the effect both could have on the party come November.

Harold Ickes, the strong-willed party operative who is running Clinton's effort to round up superdelegates, said the media has exaggerated the threat of a convention fracas. "There's all this apocalyptic talk about a bloody convention, a raging fight over credentials—some reports have gone so far as to analogize the possibility of Chicago 1968," Ickes said. "This is just overwrought hype … I think this issue will be settled well before the convention. It may go to the credentials committee. But if I had to bet I'd bet against it."