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Democrats Keep Their Endorsements in Neutral

Times Staff Writer

A little-noticed part of the Democratic presidential contest is unfolding on Capitol Hill, and initial returns show that, as elsewhere in the country, the race is far from settled.

Most Democrats in Congress have so far declined to endorse any of the party’s presidential candidates, despite months of wooing and arm-twisting by most of the contenders and their allies. Some who have taken sides have done so mainly as a courtesy to candidates from their home states.

Nowhere is the party’s division more apparent than in California’s congressional delegation.

Just 13 of the state’s 33 Democratic House members and one of its two senators -- both Democrats -- are publicly backing a candidate. These endorsements are spread among six of the nine contenders.

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“Our party’s pro-choice -- pro-Democratic choice,” quipped Rep. Sam Farr of Carmel, a former chairman of the state Democratic delegation. Farr remains uncommitted.

At this point four years ago, most congressional Republicans were foursquare behind George W. Bush’s presidential campaign, including nearly all of California’s House GOP delegation. The congressional solidarity for Bush gave him a deep base of influential party support that helped him withstand a strong primary challenge from Sen. John McCain. Only a few lawmakers backed the Arizona maverick over the Texas governor when the contest was still in doubt.

In 2004, congressional endorsements could also play an important factor if the Democratic nomination is not determined in the early primaries and caucuses. More than 18% of the 4,318 delegates to the party’s convention in Boston will be “super-delegates.”

These 798 uncommitted partisans, unlike the other, pledged delegates, will be free to vote on the first ballot for whomever they like. The super-delegates include about 250 congressional Democrats and hundreds of state and local officials. As a bloc, they outnumber all of the pledged delegates from California (370), New York (236) and Florida (177) combined.

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While they may not be able to anoint a nominee, the super-delegates collectively could boost a preferred candidate or undercut others. And as party leaders, they help confer credibility on a presidential aspirant.

Those who have chosen sides, naturally, claim to have bet on a winner. Consider Rep. Zoe Lofgren of San Jose, Farr’s successor as delegation leader. The five-term lawmaker endorsed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean for president on April 9 -- the first House member from any state to do so.

It seemed an inauspicious moment for Dean, a presidential candidate then best-known for opposing the Iraq war. That day, U.S. armed forces seized control of Baghdad and jubilant Iraqis toppled a statue of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein. At the time, many Democrats speculated that Dean’s antiwar stance would marginalize him. But as the U.S. casualties have continued to mount in Iraq, he has become a central figure in the race, leading the field in fund-raising and running strongly in polls in key early states.

Lofgren claims many House Democrats are giving Dean a closer look. “People are enticed by his tremendous success around the country,” she said. “They go home, and their constituents ask about him.”

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She has hosted a garden party for him at her Silicon Valley home, raising more than $200,000, and has introduced Dean to other House Democrats at breakfasts in Washington.

Still, for all his momentum, Dean has the public backing of only 10 members of Congress, according to the latest tallies last week. The only other Californian to endorse him is Rep. Bob Filner of San Diego.

The candidate with the most congressional backing is Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, with 32 endorsements. Mining contacts built over 14 terms, the former House minority leader is backed by his successor, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, and four other Californians.

Gephardt, however, has not been able to significantly enlarge his endorsement count since he announced an initial group of 30 backers in May.

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Many of the party’s best-known lawmakers remain uncommitted, including Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts ranks second in endorsements with 18, according to the list kept by Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper. Kerry’s supporters include Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, her home-state colleague, is focusing on a 2004 reelection campaign and staying neutral for now.

Ranking next in endorsements are Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, with 13, and retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, with 12. Clark, who entered the race less than a month ago, drew about 65 lawmakers -- some curious, some committed -- to a recent gathering on Capitol Hill.

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One of Clark’s congressional foot soldiers is Rep. Mike Thompson of St. Helena, who signed an open letter to lawmakers urging support for the former NATO commander. “He appeals to a wide range of individuals with his conviction, his passion, his intellect and his skills,” Thompson said of Clark. “We need him in the debate right now.”

Among the other candidates, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina has eight congressional endorsements, former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun two and the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio one each.

The lone Kucinich backer is Rep. Lynn Woolsey of Petaluma.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

California Democrats take sides

Endorsements by members of California’s congressional delegation in the Democratic presidential race:

Howard Dean: Reps. Zoe Lofgren of San Jose and Bob Filner of San Diego

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* Richard A. Gephardt: Reps. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, Howard L. Berman of North Hollywood, Robert T. Matsui of Sacramento, Adam B. Schiff of Burbank and Lois Capps of Santa Barbara

* John F. Kerry: Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald of Carson

* Joe Lieberman: Reps. Dennis A. Cardoza of Atwater, Calvin Dooley of Hanford and Ellen O. Tauscher of Pleasanton

* Dennis J. Kucinich: Rep. Lynn Woolsey of Petaluma

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* Wesley Clark: Rep. Mike Thompson of St. Helena

Source: Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles Times


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