WASHINGTON — The fight for the approximately 270 uncommitted Democratic Party superdelegates shifted into a higher gear Wednesday, but few of the party insiders were ready to pledge their allegiance to Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.
Still, the pressure was on for the party leaders, activists and lawmakers who could decide the Democratic nomination to make up their minds and end the long and increasingly taxing race.
Party leaders talked privately throughout the day to unpledged members of Congress at the Capitol, urging them to announce decisions before the final primaries on June 3.
“If this goes beyond that,” said Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., a party vice chairman, “it could lead to the perception that the superdelegates are wagging this dog” and make voters in Democratic primaries and caucuses less important.
Obama forces thought they had fresh ammunition from Tuesday’s primary results. The Illinois senator won North Carolina easily, and nearly beat Clinton in Indiana. Obama now has 1,840.5 convention delegates to Clinton’s 1,688, with 2,025 needed to nominate.
Those totals include the so-called superdelegates. Clinton claims 271 of them, Obama claims 256, and about 270 are unpledged.
Obama got new support Wednesday from three: North Carolina party chairman Jerry Meek, state Democratic National Committee member Jeanette Council and California DNC member Inola Henry.
Clinton won the backing of Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., after she beat Obama in his western North Carolina district.
Most others said they'll wait, but many offered hints that they're inching toward Obama. So did some superdelegates who've said they support Clinton.
Christopher Stampolis, a Santa Clara, Calif. community college trustee who endorsed Clinton after January’s Iowa caucuses, wants to study the voting patterns in Indiana.
“As a super, I have the responsibility and the luxury to assess these results academically,” Stampolis said. “If either candidate shows significant weaknesses among any segments of voters, we’re at a disadvantage.”
Clinton won less than 10 percent of the black vote in Indiana and North Carolina, while Obama did poorly among white working class voters in both states.
Others hinted that they were close to deciding. Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., appears to be moving toward Obama because, Spratt spokesman Chuck Fant said, “Obama’s popularity in the 5th District cannot be ignored.” Obama carried all 14 counties in Spratt’s 5th District in the state’s January primary. Spratt huddled Wednesday with Clinton and remained uncommitted.
In Idaho, still-uncommitted party chairman Keith Roark said that if at the end of the primary season, “Obama has the largest total of votes, largest total of delegates and has won more primaries and caucuses than she has, I do not see how the Democratic Party denies him, the first African-American to be in that position, and survives.”
Other superdelegates were more circumspect, echoing the view of Ed Espinosa, a DNC member and Long Beach, Calif., political and public relations consultant.
“I haven’t really had a chance to clear my mind and think about this since watching the election returns,” he said. “Mathematically, it doesn’t look good for Hillary Clinton. But it’s not over yet, and there are still states to vote.”
There are six more primaries, beginning with West Virginia on May 13, with a total of 217 delegates at stake.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., cited his state’s May 20 primary as a reason to remain uncommitted. “We haven’t had a relevant primary since 1984, and I want to see a big turnout,” he said.
Some superdelegates said they want specific concerns addressed. Crystal Strait of California, a Young Democrats of America representative, wants to hear more about youth issues, while Steven Ybarra, a professor at Sacramento City College, is eager for more attention for Latino voter outreach.
“Unless somebody comes up with a plan to deal with Mexican-American voters, they’re going to lose in November,” Ybarra said. “Would you be happy if they ignored your constituency? I’m not budging. I’ve got no reason to move.”
Rep. Zack Space, D-Ohio, had a different reason for waiting: “I want to see what each candidate will do for rural America,” he said.
The superdelegates have no easy formula for making a final decision.
Helen Knetzer of Wichita, the president of the National Federation of Democratic Women, said that Obama’s response to controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s remarks was “a little shaky,” but she still planned to wait “until the last primary is over.
“I try to keep an open mind and am really trying to be alert,” Knetzer said, “because a lot of things are going to happen in the next month.”
One of those developments could come on May 31, when the party’s rules and bylaws committee meets to decide how to deal with the disputed Florida and Michigan results.
Clinton won both January contests, but Obama kept his name off the Michigan ballot and neither candidate campaigned in Florida. Because the contests were held in violation of party rules, the DNC has refused to recognize the outcomes.
David McDonald, a Seattle superdelegate and national committee member, is waiting until the panel meets.
“I think the appearance is going to be helped by some of us staying uncommitted . . . . So I am not planning to make a decision or issue any statements until we are finished with the challenges," he said.
His attitude was shared by many other superdelegates _ there’s still time.
“Yesterday was another day in the journey,” said Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo. “And I remain steadfastly uncommitted.”
(Contributing to this story were the following McClatchy reporters: Erika Bolstad, Heath Druzin and Dan Popkey of the Idaho Statesman; Sara Ganim of the Centre Daily Times in Pennsylvania; Peter Hecht of the Sacramento Bee; Bill Krueger of the (Raleigh) News & Observer; James Rosen of The State (Columbia, S.C.); Brad Shannon of The Olympian in Olympia, Wash.; Niki Sullivan of the (Tacoma) News Tribune; Brent Wistrom of the Wichita Eagle and Lisa Zagaroli of the Charlotte Observer.)