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Superdelegates: Whiners or Deciders?

By Bob Beckel

Now that the math makes it impossible to anoint a Democratic candidate for president at the ballot box, it's up to superdelegates to decide the 2008 nominee. There has been much hand wringing by party leaders (most of whom are superdelegates) over a protracted Obama/Clinton battle, perhaps all the way to the convention in Denver. There is an easy way for superdelegates to avoid this by cutting the whining and do their job.

The nomination contests will end June 3rd. All the evidence necessary for superdelegates to choose a nominee will then be in. They should stop worrying, make a decision on June 4th, and go enjoy their summer. After all, it won't be the first time superdelegates (aka party leaders) have had to choose a nominee when no candidate for president could capture a majority of pledged delegates.

In 1984 I managed Walter Mondale's campaign for president. Mondale won the nomination after a bruising battle with Colorado Senator Gary Hart and Reverend Jesse Jackson. Three important ingredients contributed to his success; "Where's the Beef" (a line I shamelessly stole from a Wendy's commercial), the "Red Phone" ad which was created by our campaign and produced by Texas ad man Roy Spence. Spence was also behind the "Red Phone" ad for Hillary Clinton in her Texas primary win.

The ad worked both times; in our case with enough potency (coupled with "Where's the Beef") to severely slow and then reverse Hart's momentum. In Clinton's case it did slow Obama's momentum but probably too late to stop him. (Note to Mark Penn; if anyone deserves credit for the red phone ad it's the Mondale campaign...... you're welcome.)

The third key to Mondale's nomination, and arguably the most important, were superdelegates. Superdelegates were created in the early '80s with the strong backing of the Mondale campaign. These were party leaders (most with long histories with Mondale) who would decide the nomination if a candidate failed to get enough pledged delegates for a convention majority. Mondale had predicted enough delegates to claim the nomination after the last primaries on June 5th, '84. We came up short and needed roughly 50 superdelegates to commit. They did, allowing Mondale to claim the nomination on June 6th.

Did we twist arms and call in old debts like the Obama campaign believes the Clintons are doing? Sure, but that kind of pressure rarely worked. Our strongest arguments (which sold virtually all 50 superdelegates) were that: Mondale had won the most pledged delegates overall, gotten the most popular votes, and, more importantly, had won the home states or districts of the superdelegates we had targeted that day. Without a compelling reason, superdelegates were loath to go against the majority of their constituents. It was true in '84 and it should be true in '08.

Barack Obama currently holds a 167 vote margin among pledged delegates. Even if Hillary Clinton wins most of the remaining contests she will still be well over 100 delegates behind. There are currently 334 uncommitted superdelegates. At the end of the nomination calendar most observers agree Obama; will have won the majority of states and congressional districts, win the most popular votes, and will have won the states and districts of most of the undecided superdelegates.

For superdelegates to oppose him in the face of that outcome would require an overwhelming case that Obama is not electable in the general election The Clinton campaign has only two arguments to make that case. One is absurd; the other is real but fraught with danger.

The absurd argument (and one that most of the press/pundit class is actually taking seriously) is that she has won "the critical big states" leaving the impression that somehow this makes Obama's chances of carrying these states in November suspect. C'mon, we're talking Democratic primaries here which have virtually no impact on the general election. A review of the blue collar, majority white, lower income precincts Clinton won in the Ohio primary, for example, show precincts that have voted consistently Democratic in presidential elections for the past 16 years.

Either Clinton or Obama will get these votes in November. (The recent analysis that Obama has a race problem with white males in similar precincts is vastly overstated). The real question is whether the Obama primary voters will come back to the polls if Clinton is the nominee. Obama's black and young supporters will vote for Clinton, but almost certainly not with the intensity they have supported him in primaries and caucuses. Independent voters and those weak Republican voters who have been with Obama in the primaries will likely go to McCain, given Clinton's high negatives among both groups.

Obama's other electability issue depends on the outcome of the controversy surrounding his pastor, Jeremiah Wright. This story broke at an especially bad time for Obama given the five week news hiatus before the Pennsylvania primary and intensified press scrutiny from reporters who felt an obligation to be tough after the Clinton campaign's endless complaints about soft coverage for Obama.

Obama's speech in Philly yesterday on race, and specifically the Wright issue, was one of the most compelling I have heard in over 30 years in politics. It was direct with no attempt at evasion. It was emotional yet straight forward. Where most politicians would have abandoned a supporter like Jeremiah Wright and the community he served, Obama, while strongly criticizing him, but did not throw his friend overboard. It was, in my view, one of the best, if not the best, transformative speech on race and politics ever given.

Unless it is proven that Obama lied about not being in the pew when Wright delivered the controversial statements in question then, for the vast majority of Democrats at least, he is likely to put this crisis behind him.

But the Republican right wing has seized on the Wright story and is unlikely to let it go. For John McCain this has serious downside potential. Anger in the black community towards Republicans is established and immutable. But if conservatives are perceived as exploiting yet another race story, anger could spread to moderate Republican and Independent voters, many in the suburbs, where the Republicans have been bleeding support the last decade.

For those supporters of Hillary Clinton who see the story as a way of selling superdelegates on Obama's unelectability, the downside is far more dangerous. If the Clinton campaign is caught using the race card, particularly after Bill Clinton's 'cracker tour' of South Carolina, it will assure a Clinton defeat in November. Not only will blacks boycott the polls, so will many of the millions of young voters Obama has brought into the political process.

(Many liberals like myself, who would be happy to support Hillary Clinton if she earned the nomination, would abandon her if her campaign seeks to exploit the Wright controversy either in the remaining contests or with superdelegates.)

To repeat, for the benefit of undecided superdelegates; the nominating voting process ends on June 3rd. Superdelegates will have all the information they need (and none of the excuses they've been hiding behind) to declare support for one of the candidates by June 4th. If voting trends continue as they have, there is no other choice but Barack Obama.

If they go with Hillary Clinton, the case against Obama's electability better be a strong one. If not, superdelegates will be responsible for ripping the party apart in an election year that favors Democrats on every front. These "party leaders" will also be responsible for alienating our most loyal constituency and locking the door on our first young recruits in decades.

Do it on the "big state" argument and you deserve to be laughed out of town or maybe horsewhipped in Denver.

Bob Beckel managed Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign. He is a senior political analyst for the Fox News Channel and a columnist for USA Today. Beckel is the co-author with Cal Thomas of the book "Common Ground."

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