Candidates Press for Endorsements

Posted February 6, 2008 at 6:43pm

With a brokered Democratic convention increasingly possible, both of the party’s presidential campaigns began turning up the heat on their House and Senate colleagues Wednesday to win over new endorsements that — in this election year — could equate to more than just a symbolic gesture.

Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) have been courting their Congressional colleagues’ support for months, but their allies are now taking that lobbying to a new level as both candidates publicly acknowledged this week that they may be dueling for their party’s nomination until the August convention in Denver. Democratic Senators and House Members comprise about a third of the convention’s 796 superdelegates — who during a disputed nominating process could be a decisive constituency for the party’s ultimate nominee for president.

“There are 796 of us — Members of Congress and beyond,” Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), Obama’s No. 1 Senate supporter, said Wednesday. “It’s an ongoing effort. We’re going after every superdelegate.”

“We’re hoping we can convince them to join us,” Durbin added. “These are real votes. It takes 2,025 to win the nomination so those 796 should be given serious consideration.”

Obama’s campaign has put together a coordinated effort within the past few days to target uncommitted superdelegates, both in Congress and in the states where governors and other prominent Democrats share the role. The campaign held two separate conference calls this week with Obama’s Congressional supporters and both focused almost exclusively on ratcheting up efforts to secure superdelegates.

In one of the conversations, held Tuesday, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe discussed how to divvy up superdelegate calls with the Senator’s senior whips, including Durbin, other members of the Illinois delegation, and Sens. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) and John Kerry (Mass.). All of Obama’s Congressional supporters were invited to join another conference call Wednesday, and the main focus again was the effort to pick up superdelegate support.

“It’s a big push right now,” said one source familiar with the call. “It’s all a superdelegate push right now.”

The pressure to grow endorsements may be greater for Obama since Clinton already has a sizable advantage in the committed superdelegate count, having captured 211 to his 171, according to the source familiar with the Obama campaign’s running total. Some — but certainly not all — of Clinton’s backers come from the halls of Congress, where she now has 90 endorsements, compared to Obama’s 64.

A Democratic strategist aligned with the Clinton organization said the New York Senator’s endorsement chase has “been nonstop” for months, but in recent days she’s begun employing her allies, state supporters and donors to work from the ground up to convince more Members of Congress to publicly sign onto her candidacy. The strategist said the goal for both candidates is no longer to use endorsements to add momentum to their campaigns, but rather to grow their prospective Democratic votes for the convention.

“Every one of these people is a delegate — that’s what the fight has become,” this Clinton backer said.

The new cache for a Congressional endorsement comes on the heels of the Super Tuesday primaries, during which 22 states held contests, and neither Obama nor Clinton emerged the frontrunner. The race between the two Senators has been neck-and-neck for weeks, but has become even tighter after the latest round of elections.

The closeness of the contest between two respected Democratic Senators has put many in the Conference in the uncomfortable position of picking sides, and some are digging in about staying neutral as long as they possibly can.

Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), for one, said that given the closeness of the race, “certainly there will be more campaigning” for superdelegates. But Wyden said that with commitments from both candidates to his ideas about health care reform, he’s keeping his powder dry until the end, saying: “I think you’ll see a number of Senators staying very fluid.”

But not if Clinton and Obama have their way.

Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.), an ardent Clinton supporter, said Wednesday that while he hopes the nominating contest doesn’t actually carry on until Aug. 25, he recognizes the potential influence a superdelegate like himself could wield. He said Clinton has never underestimated the value of those Congressional supporters, and she was courting them “way before the specter of a brokered convention was a real possibility.”

“That universe of delegates has always been very important, and Sen. Clinton has known that from the very beginning,” Menendez said.

Whether lobbying from Clinton and Obama will directly translate into new endorsements for their candidacies in the coming days is unclear, but several Congressional Democrats said Wednesday that the extraordinary nature of the 2008 presidential race is forcing them to give more thought to pledging support for one of the two candidates.

“It might,” Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.) said of endorsing soon. “I’ve debated about weighing in or not and I am continuing to debate that.”

Another neutral Senator who is also entertaining making public his allegiance is Sen. Byron Dorgan (N.D.), who called the horse race between his two colleagues “one of the most exciting and interesting things I’ve seen in politics.”

Dorgan added that while “he doesn’t think the superdelegates are going to tip the scales on this,” he does believe “there are those who have not made a declaration who will make that determination between now and going to the convention.”

Asked about his own position, Dorgan said: “I’m going to wait for now. I haven’t decided what to do.”

Clinton and Obama will square off in a series of primaries in the coming days, including Louisiana, Nebraska and Washington state on Saturday, and the so-called Potomac Primary of Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Feb. 12. With those states on the front burner, several Democratic Members who have stayed neutral are likely to be of particular interest for the candidates.

One of those, Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.), reiterated her neutrality on Wednesday, saying in a statement: “I intend to support the nominee chosen through this open and invigorating process, and believe that all our state’s delegate votes at the convention should reflect the proportions of Saturday’s popular vote.”

While pressure is greatest on the Members from states that are voting in the next month, support from any and all Members is a sought-after commodity.

The Democratic strategist and Clinton supporter said the New York Senator is certainly hoping to corral new Congressional endorsements but is also keeping a close watch on support in the states where a Democratic governor is not only a superdelegate but also can have tremendous influence with the electorate. Clinton learned that Members are superdelegates, but do not necessarily deliver electoral wins, the strategist said, noting that Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama didn’t translate into a victory in Massachusetts for the Illinois Senator.

“He didn’t carry his state” for Obama, this Clinton ally said.

Meanwhile, the emphasis for Obama’s whips is on coaxing the House Members and Senators who have privately pledged their support for Obama — or who are viewed as unlikely to ever support Clinton — to make public endorsements. Many of them are from conservative states and electability is a key argument of Obama supporters, asking Members to consider whom they would prefer to run with at the top of the ticket in November. They are also stressing urgency, telling potential supporters that their actions now could help decide the nominee and prevent the party from having a brokered convention.

Obama whips also are targeting former supporters of ex-Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), and even quietly going after some of Clinton’s early backers whose support may have soften by now.

“The message to Members is that this is when their support matters,” the source close to the Obama campaign said.