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The art of political courtship

Times Staff Writer

Before the telephone rang at 10:03 Saturday morning in her Philadelphia home, Carol Ann Campbell was inclined to use her position as a superdelegate to the Democratic National Convention to make Hillary Rodham Clinton the party’s presidential nominee.

By the time she hung up, Campbell had been persuaded to throw her support to Barack Obama.

On the other end of the line was Michelle Obama, 44, the Illinois senator’s wife. In that 1-hour, 27-minute call, the would-be first lady made the sale.

She talked about taking her two young daughters to dance lessons later that day. She shared a bit of campaign strategy, laying out how volunteers would be moved into Pennsylvania, which votes April 22, once Texas and Ohio hold their primaries March 4. And when Campbell mentioned that she uses a wheelchair, Obama spoke about her late father, who used a scooter to get around.

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“She was talking to me like you would your girlfriend,” said Campbell, a Philadelphia Democratic Party official who also heads the city’s African American ward leaders. “Now, I’m old enough to be her mother, but I like what I heard. . . . I loved that those little girls going to dancing lessons were just as important to her as being out there campaigning. And she told me how her mom slammed her finger in the door the day before. No pretense. Just real.”

With the Democratic delegate count nearly deadlocked, conversations like that one are playing out daily. Candidates, their relatives and their famous supporters are targeting the 800 or so superdelegates -- party activists, elected officials and others whose votes will make the difference if neither Obama nor Clinton wins 2,025 regular delegates in the primaries and caucuses to clinch the nomination.

The courting of the superdelegates takes many forms.

Chris Stampolis of Santa Clara has heard from former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, a Clinton supporter. Taling Taitano from Guam got a call from Obama’s half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng. Earlier this month, Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, took college student Jason Rae to breakfast in Wisconsin.

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Michelle Obama had been trying repeatedly to reach Campbell. She had left a voice-mail for Campbell earlier last week. “For her to take the time to care about what I thought and try to answer any question I might have, that’s not your normal candidate,” Campbell said.

In committing to Obama, Campbell is taking a position at odds with part of the state’s Democratic establishment. The Clintons have deep ties to Pennsylvania. Gov. Edward G. Rendell, also a superdelegate, has endorsed the New York senator, as has Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter.

Campbell said her support for Clinton was largely based on affection for former President Clinton, who visited the city often in the 1990s.

Now, she said, she is beginning to talk to the city’s two dozen or so black ward leaders, trying to entice others to the Obama camp.

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Campbell, a former councilwoman, said she was distressed to see race injected into the campaign. She said she was unhappy that after Obama won the South Carolina primary, former President Clinton compared Obama’s candidacy to that of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who won the South Carolina Democratic presidential primaries in 1984 and ’88 but had little support elsewhere.

And she was dismayed by a comment from Rendell that Pennsylvania’s white voters might be reluctant to vote for Obama. “What does [Rendell] think has been going on across this country?” Campbell said, referring to Obama’s recent string of victories.

“This used to be a Clinton city, but I don’t know if this is going to be a Clinton city in this election,” she said. Referring to Obama, she added: “This is the first person I’ve seen on the horizon who is a wonderful example for a little black person -- to set their goals higher.”

In wooing superdelegates, niceties get noticed. And slights, intended or not, can loom large. Campbell did get a call from a Clinton supporter, but not those from whom she wanted to hear.

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One person she had thought might call on Clinton’s behalf was Tony Podesta, one of Washington’s top lobbyists and a longtime party activist. In an interview Monday, Podesta said that he was not at a high level in the Clinton campaign and had no such role. “If she is feeling slighted by me, she shouldn’t,” Podesta said, “because I haven’t called anyone else, either.”

peter.nicholas@latimes.com


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