With her deep party ties, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was supposed to own the superdelegate primary.
But in the last two months, it’s been the rookie, Democratic rival Barack Obama, who has maximized his superdelegate moments.
When new images of Obama pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s “God damn” America sermon emerged in March, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was escorted to a stage to dub the Illinois senator “a once-in-a-lifetime leader” and steady the candidate.
In the aftermath of another staggering wave of Wright publicity and after getting thrashed in the Pennsylvania primary, it was former Democratic National Committee chairman and Clinton backer Joe Andrew’s turn to stem the bleeding as Obama fought for a close finish in Andrew’s home state of Indiana.
And then there was former presidential challenger John Edwards on stage this week in Michigan endorsing Obama and putting the brakes on any momentum Clinton might have seized from her West Virginia primary rout.
It is unclear whether the timing of the show-stopping endorsements is the product of luck or design. Both the candidates and the superdelegates are on virgin turf, feeling their way through a primary phase that has never been tested since the nominating rules were written in the late 1980s.
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Obama’s campaign won’t elaborate on its superdelegate strategy. “As people tell us they support us, we release it,” said Bill Burton, a campaign spokesman.
That’s pretty much how it worked in Andrew’s case.
In an interview, the former DNC chairman said the campaign never overtly asked for his support since he’d already announced his backing of Clinton. But it stayed in contact with him, seeking guidance on issues or strategy.
That lack of pressure impressed Andrew, who said he viewed it as “part and parcel with their commitment not to play the political game the old way.”
Once he made up his mind to switch his pledge, he called the campaign on a Tuesday and said he’d like to go public on Thursday when he could get back home to Indiana from Washington.
“They said, ‘O.K.,’” Andrew said.
Such a hands-off approach, of course, doesn’t fully explain the made-for-television moments that surrounded the Edwards and Richardson endorsements. And people close to the campaign say that some superdelegate announcements have been delayed a day or two to ensure full impact.
Richardson, a former Clinton cabinet secretary, has told reporters that he decided to endorse Obama a week before it became public. The Obama campaign, on the day of the announcement, said only that the governor had informed it “recently” about his decision.
There is no doubt, however, about the impact of the March 21 event in Oregon that came on the heels of Obama’s well-received speech in Philadelphia about race in America.
Richardson’s effusive endorsement drowned out the Wright story, sent a powerful signal to Hispanics and other superdelegates, and so angered Clinton supporters that consultant James Carville was reduced to calling his former friend “Judas.”
“It’s like playing a Bridge hand,” said Peter Hart, a Democratic polling expert. “You want to use your trump cards at the right time and in the right way.”
Beyond the big names, the Obama campaign has also employed his superdelegate pledges to create a lower decibel -- drip, drip, drip -- feeling of inevitability to his nomination quest.
It began as trickle after Super Tuesday, with two superdelegates announcing one day, followed by another one two days later. Then they came in threes and fives. Now there seems to be a steady flow, boosting Obama to what is curently a 288.5 to 270.5 advantage over Clinton.
In addition to unveiling Edwards, Obama countered Clinton’s West Virginia win this week with endorsements from another former Clinton-era DNC chairman, Roy Romer, the steelworkers union, NARAL Pro-Choice America abortion rights group, and three former Securities and Exchange commissioners.
“You don’t have control of your own destiny because a lot depends on when these people want to come out and they have different ways to stage it,” said Bill Carrick, a neutral Democratic consultant. “But when you have three or four a day, you have a story every day about it.”
The incremental nature of the process runs counter to rumors earlier in the campaign that the Obama camp had a sizeable bloc of superdelegates that planned to endorse him after Ohio or North Carolina and decisively shift momentum in the race. Burton dismisses those strategic musings as “just rumors.”
Doug Schoen, another independent Democratic consultant, says that ultimately a slower strategy is the best one for the campaign.
“By doing it that way, they are avoiding the charge that the bosses, the party leaders and insiders, are conspiring to deny Hillary a voice and voters a choice,” said Schoen.
“My sense of it is that everything is working to their advantage. They get more press each time they do it. They are not looking like they are trying to steamroll Hillary. And the inevitability is fed,” he added.