WASHINGTON – Democratic insiders have given self-styled outsider Howard Dean (search) his first lead in the chase for delegates needed to capture the party's presidential nomination, according to an Associated Press survey.
In the first "ballots" cast of the 2004 race, the former Vermont governor has endorsements or pledges of support from 80 Democratic "superdelegates" (search) - elected officials and other party officials who will help select a nominee at this July's convention.
Rival Dick Gephardt (search), the former House Democratic leader who has served as Missouri congressman for 28 years, has the backing of 57 superdelegates. Four-term Sen. John Kerry (search) of Massachusetts has the support of 50.
Among the remaining candidates, three-term Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the 2000 vice presidential nominee, has 25 superdelegates, while Wesley Clark, the retired general who has never held elected office, has 22. First-term Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina has 15.
The long-shot hopefuls - Al Sharpton (3), Carol Moseley Braun (3) and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio (2) - were in single digits.
One Democratic superdelegate has endorsed President Bush.
Dean frequently has railed against Washington insiders while building much of his front-runner support through the Internet and grass-roots organization. Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi contended that Dean's appeal has filtered to the superdelegates - an argument others echoed.
The early results show that talk of a revolt by Democratic insiders against Dean "was not grounded in reality," said Elaine Kamarck, who teaches public policy at Harvard University and was a senior adviser to Al Gore in the 2000 campaign.
"It is not surprising that Dean has picked up momentum" given his lead in state and national polls, said Kamarck, who is herself a superdelegate who has not endorsed a candidate.
But the survey, conducted in the last three weeks, provides an early snapshot of the delegate chase - one that can change quickly. Voters haven't gone to the polls yet to select the regular delegates, with Iowa's caucuses slated Jan. 19 and the New Hampshire primary Jan. 27.
To win the nomination, a candidate must have 2,162 delegates, using any combination of superdelegates and regular delegates who are pledged to a candidate based on primary or caucus results.
Superdelegates, officially known as "unpledged," aren't bound to vote for the candidate who wins the primary of their respective state. They also can change their mind as the primary race unfolds.
"The superdelegate race is still wide open," said Joe Eyer, political director for Lieberman's campaign.
In the AP survey, 584 of the 725 superdelegates listed by the Democratic National Committee (search) were contacted. Of those, only 258 had endorsed a candidate. Another 326 said they were uncommitted or declined to answer, while 141 could not be reached.
Most observers think there will be two big waves of superdelegate pledges over the next several months: after Feb. 3, when seven states, including Arizona and South Carolina, hold contests; and after the "Super Tuesday" races of March 2, when 10 states, including New York and California, hold primaries.
"A lot more superdelegates we will see come forward when the voters begin to speak," said Tad Devine, a consultant to the Kerry campaign.
In addition to the 725 named superdelegates, another 77 superdelegate slots have yet to be filled. On paper, a total of 802 superdelegates were to attend the Democratic convention when it convenes in Boston starting July 26.
But the overall number is expected to drop by one based on the party switch of Rep. Ralph Hall (search) of Texas to the Republicans. The DNC is waiting for his paperwork to be finalized before officially crossing him off the list.
The campaigns keep their own tallies, and in some cases, their counts include people who have offered support in private, but who have not made public endorsements.
The AP's tally covered only those who could be contacted, either personally or through a representative, and who have publicly declared support for a candidate. The AP assigned superdelegates who also are candidates, such as Kerry and Gephardt, into the endorsement column for that specific candidate, meaning Kerry was assigned to himself.
One superdelegate, conservative Democratic Sen. Zell Miller (search) of Georgia, has endorsed Bush. Miller, a first-term lawmaker, has decided not to seek another term.