WASHINGTON- Rev. Randy B. Kelley voted in Alabama’s presidential primary on Super Tuesday.
As a Democratic superdelegate, he’ll cast a second vote – a much more influential one – when the party meets to nominate Sen. Hillary Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama at the national convention in August.
Though Obama surged ahead of Clinton in the all-important race for delegates last week, it’s increasingly possible that neither candidate will have the majority needed to win the nomination when the primary season ends.
The nominee could be determined by the votes of Kelley and 795 other superdelegates: local activists, congressmen, former presidents and party insiders from every state who can vote for whomever they please. They’re political free agents.
“The superdelegate is a hot commodity,” said Kelley, who lives in Gadsden. He is supporting Clinton, but has been lobbied constantly by Obama supporters.
Of Alabama’s seven superdelegates, three support Clinton, one backs Obama and three are uncommitted.
As the importance of superdelegates has escalated in recent weeks, campaigns and outside groups have stepped up lobbying efforts.
High profile supporters – including Chelsea Clinton and former President Bill Clinton – and the candidates themselves have been working the phones.
Between pitches from the two campaigns and media inquiries, superdelegate Joe Turnham of Auburn receives about a dozen calls and emails every day.
Turnham, a business consultant and chair of the Alabama party, hopes Democrats unify around one candidate soon and focuses on getting a Democrat in the White House.
“I’m hopeful that it won’t come down to one party chairman in Alabama,” he said.
After 35 contests, Obama currently leads Clinton 1,275 to 1,220 in the regular delegate count, according to a tally by the Associated Press. At the convention, 4,049 delegates will cast votes, and a candidate needs 2,025 to secure the nomination. Nearly one in five votes will come from superdelegates.
Many of Obama’s supporters argue that superdelegates should vote for the candidate with the most pledged delegates after the final primary.
Nearly every state this year has seen heightened turnout among Democrats, including record numbers of younger voters. Choosing the runner-up as the nominee could disappoint voters and dampen excitement for the general election, they argue.
Moveon.org, a progressive political group that endorsed Obama, circulated an online petition this week asking superdelegates to affirm the delegate leader. The group plans to run newspaper ads soon.
To Wilber Lee Jeffcoat, a South Carolina superdelegate by virtue of nearly half a century of involvement with local Democratic politics, the argument for going with the delegate leader is compelling.
“I’m concerned that doing otherwise would be seen as overturning the will of the people. This is a democracy,” said Jeffcoat, a South Carolina Democratic Party vice chairman. Nevertheless, he isn’t sure whom he will vote for. He also declined to say whom he voted for in South Carolina’s primary last month.
Many of Clinton’s supporters say superdelegates should not base their decision on the outcome of primaries and caucuses. They say superdelegates should make an independent choice on which candidate can beat John McCain, the likely GOP nominee.
“That’s the overriding thing for me: who can win,” said superdelegate Carol Fowler, chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party. Her husband, Don Fowler, is also a superdelegate. He’s a prominent Clinton supporter, but Carol Fowler said she has not decided.
The fact that the people of her state voted overwhelmingly for Obama, she said, “is something I have to consider.”
The arguments from both sides present a challenge for the dozens of superdelegates who are members of Congress. Many have endorsed Obama or Clinton, and several have received campaign contributions from the presidential hopefuls.
Do they support their preferred candidate? Do they go with the one that holds a national lead, or the one that won their state or district?
“My sense is that the folks weighing in now with advice about what would be the righteous way for a superdelegate to cast their vote are supporting a position that would help their preferred candidate,” said Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., a superdelegate.
Miller originally backed John Edwards and has not endorsed another candidate since the former North Carolina senator left the race.
Not every superdelegate is using cold logic as their guide. Some say personal relationships with a candidate are a factor.
Virginia state Del. Jennifer McClellan said her support of Clinton stems to sitting with her at a 1992 presidential debate at the University of Richmond.
“She inspired my political career,” she said.
So far, Clinton is leading the race for superdelegates, according to news organization tallies. She has the support of 234 to Obama’s 157, according to interviews conducted by CNN.
But those commitments are not set in stone. On Thursday, Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia superdelegate and prominent civil rights leader, told the New York Times he would vote for Obama at the convention, despite his endorsement earlier of Clinton.
“Something is happening in America, and people are prepared and ready to make that great leap,” Lewis said, according to the Times. Lewis’s office later said the article misstated his support for Obama.
There were other signs that Clinton’s superdelegate lead could be eroding after heavy losses in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.
On Tuesday, before the polls closed in Virginia, Clinton supporter Del. Lionell Spruill Sr. said “Hell will freeze over before I change my vote” to Obama.
But after Obama won 70 percent of the vote in Spruill’s district, Spruill told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “I’m going to look at how [Clinton] does in Texas and Ohio and reassess after that.”
About half the superdelegates are either undecided or refuse to say who they’re backing. In interviews with Media General, several said they hope one candidate somehow earns enough votes to secure the nomination before the convention – or one concedes.
Superdelegates were added by Democratic leaders in 1982 to give party insiders more say in the presidential nominating process.
Because of the close race this year, they are in the spotlight as never before. The last thing South Carolina state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter wants is for the votes of superdelegates like her to actually matter.
“I don’t think it’s our role to be a queenmaker or kingmaker. That would be a tragedy that we’d live to regret in November,” she said.
(Neil Simon of Media General News Service contributed to this article.)