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Who’s super in this race?

Times Staff Writer

John Millin, an ophthalmologist, fits people for glasses and performs cataract operations. Debbie Marquez owns a restaurant whose specialty is chicken enchiladas in creamy jalapeno sauce. Christopher Stampolis is looking for a job now that the industrial recycling company where he worked for the last decade closed.

They share one bond -- late this summer, they will help choose the Democratic presidential nominee at the party’s national convention in Denver. When they do, they will be among a group whose ballots will count thousands of times more in the process than those of other Democrats who have gone to the polls.

These are superdelegates, nearly 800 Democratic office-holders and activists who may end up holding the nomination in their hands.

In a campaign season that has defied prediction, the final twist could be this: Although Democratic turnout has been high, shattering records in some states, the odds are good that neither Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton nor Barack Obama will have accumulated enough delegates picked through primaries and caucuses to clinch the nomination. Unless some sort of other deal is brokered, the margin of victory would come from the elite segment of superdelegates.

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How powerful are superdelegates? In California, 370 regular delegates were allotted based on the votes of more than 4.5 million people in the state’s Feb. 5 primary. That means each of California’s 66 superdelegates will cast a convention ballot equivalent to a regular delegate picked by more than 12,000 primary voters.

“This is a device to try to reduce the influence of one-person, one-vote,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the watchdog group Public Citizen. “It’s anti-democratic. It’s specifically designed for the purpose of having the insiders . . . have some sort of final decision over who the nominee is going to be, regardless of what the voters want.”

A recent tally by the Associated Press showed Clinton leading Obama in superdelegates by 77. Not all have committed themselves, and they can shift their allegiance at any time.

Some of the superdelegates are professional politicians; 27 governors are among them, as well as every Democratic member of Congress -- including Rep. William J. Jefferson of Louisiana, indicted last year on corruption charges following an FBI raid that found $90,000 in a home freezer.

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Another group consists of “distinguished party leaders” -- 23 elder statesmen and former high-ranking officials, including former Presidents Clinton and Carter and former Vice President Al Gore. Jim Wright, the former speaker of the House from Texas, also falls into this category.

Wright left Congress in 1989, a casualty of an ethics investigation into his financial dealings. Now 85, he teaches part-time and works for a life insurance company in Waco. As for his presidential preference, he said, “I want to support Hillary. That’s my plan.”

The bulk of the superdelegates are the 411 Democratic National Committee members. These include Millin of Wyoming, Marquez of Colorado and Stampolis of Santa Clara.

They’ve taken different routes to become members of the national committee. Millin, for example, said he became a member by virtue of serving as Wyoming Democratic Party chairman; Stampolis was elected by the California Democratic Party’s executive board.

Many superdelegates already have become the focus of fevered public scrutiny. When one ditches a candidate for another, it can be a sensation. A report last week that Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, an icon of the civil rights movement, might abandon Clinton for Obama made national news.

Both candidates are targeting superdelegates in aggressive lobbying campaigns.

Carol Ann Campbell, a superdelegate from Philadelphia, which votes April 22, played for a reporter a recent voice mail from Michelle Obama.

“Hi, Carol, this is Michelle Obama. I’m the wife of Barack Obama, who is running for president. Just reaching out to see where you stand on this presidential race, and obviously we want your public support of Barack.

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“Your primary [in Pennsylvania] is coming up soon and we hope to do well there, but we want people on board who are supportive as soon as possible.”

The would-be first lady left a telephone number and urged Campbell to call.

Campbell said in an interview she was “somewhat” leaning toward Clinton.

“Not so much because of her,” she said, “but because of her husband. A brilliant man.”

Myron Lowery is a Memphis City Council member and a superdelegate who recently retired from FedEx. A Clinton backer, he talked with both of the Clintons -- along with daughter Chelsea -- as they sought his support.

Lowery said he told the former president that Clinton-Obama would be a dream ticket. The former president’s reply?

“He said, ‘Neither one of them can say that right now because they’re both going for the top job.’ ”

Marquez said she was working at her home computer recently when the phone rang and the voice on the other end told her that Bill Clinton would like to speak to her. He then got on the line and made a case for his wife.

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Marquez supports Obama and nothing Clinton said persuaded her to jump ship. Explaining her position, she noted that her state, Colorado, broke for Obama by about 2 to 1 in its Feb. 5 contest.

Along with such personal contacts, the two rival Democratic camps have funneled campaign funds to many of the superdelegates who also run for office. A study by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics released last week found that over the last three years, Obama doled out about $698,000 in donations to elected officials who are superdelegates, Clinton gave about $206,000.

Amid an intensifying debate about what should guide superdelegates in making their choices, Marquez said she saw no clear-cut answer.

She said: “There’s no direction” from the Democratic National Committee, on which she has served for about four years. “There is nothing that says this is how you must do it. So that’s why everyone is struggling.”

Rep. James E. Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat who is the House’s third-ranking leader, recently said that superdelegates should not base their support on primary or caucus results and instead should make up their own minds.

His position is consistent with that of the Clinton campaign. In a conference call with reporters Saturday, senior Clinton strategist Harold Ickes said superdelegates should exercise their own judgment, considering among other matters which of the two candidates stands the best chance of defeating the likely Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has staked out the opposite position, saying in a recent interview that it would be a mistake for superdelegates to ignore the popular vote. “I think there is a concern when the public speaks and there is a counterdecision made to that,” the San Francisco Democrat said on Bloomberg Television.

That position lines up with Obama’s view. His camp argues that superdelegates should take their cue from which candidate has racked up more regular delegates; presently, Obama is ahead on this score.

Some superdelegates are wondering themselves about the power they may exert.

“I don’t think any of us got into this thinking we would somehow be part of a small group of people who get to select the next president of the United States -- or at least the party’s nominee,” Millin said. “Most reasonable people assumed the race would be over by Super Tuesday, if not in New Hampshire.”

peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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Times staff writers Richard Simon and Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

By the numbers

Superdelegates can shift their allegiance at any time.

Superdelegates

Clinton: 241

Obama: 164

Uncommitted: 391

Total: 796

Associated Press tally as of Thursday.

Overall delegates

Obama: 1,280

Clinton: 1,218

Associated Press tally as of Saturday.


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