WASHINGTON – The formula for a Democratic presidential candidate to win over the party's "superdelegates" calls for one part persistence, one part good conversational skills and plenty of time devoted to long-distance phone calls and e-mails.
Of course, winning 18 of 20 primaries or caucuses thus far, as front-runner John Kerry has done, doesn't hurt. That's how the Massachusetts senator has built his substantial lead in support among superdelegates (search) — the elected officials and other Democratic insiders who will help choose a nominee at this summer's national convention.
Heading into Tuesday's 10-state showdown, Kerry had a total of 688 delegates, according to an Associated Press tally, while rival John Edwards (search), had 207. The nomination requires a simple majority of 2,162 delegates, from any combination of pledged delegates a candidate captures from a primary or caucus, or superdelegates.
There will be 802 superdelegates at the July party convention in Boston, although only 725 have yet been named by the Democratic National Committee (search). Of those, about 75 percent either haven't endorsed a candidate or initially endorsed another candidate who has since left the race.
Kerry's lead among superdelegates is 164-29, according to the AP survey.
Since last fall, Kerry's team has focused on outreach to superdelegates, relying on a steady stream of phone calls and e-mails from campaign staffers or the candidate himself. More ardent backers often are used to drum up support. It's a strategy used in previous presidential campaigns and by other candidates this year.
The Edwards camp began its superdelegate-tracking operation in December and intensified the recruitment effort in the last month. National campaign chairman Ed Turlington said staffers and other backers are constantly calling, e-mailing or meeting with prospective supporters.
Political observers say the Kerry campaign's early persistence gave it a boost over Edwards.
"Kerry's done more on outreach since the beginning," said Harvard University professor Elaine Kamarck, who advised 2000 Democratic nominee Al Gore. Kamarck, herself a superdelegate, had endorsed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, but said she now plans to back Kerry.
Consider the case of Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, a superdelegate. Brown initially backed fellow House colleague Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri. When Gephardt dropped out last month, Brown heard the recruiting pitches from the remaining campaigns, though supporters of Kerry and Edwards were the most vocal.
Nearly two weeks ago, Kerry spoke to Brown about the senator's views on trade, manufacturing and jobs — issues especially dear to Brown's blue-collar northeast Ohio district.
Brown said a conversation was also scheduled with Edwards, but that fell through and was never rescheduled. Brown recently endorsed Kerry.
The lobbying for endorsements is "part of the business," Brown said. "But what I got out of this is it gave me a chance to explore their views on issues and what needs to be done in the state."
Superdelegate support can be volatile. These special delegates do not have to abide by the results of primaries or caucuses in their state, and they can also change their mind as often as they want.
Nearly everyone acknowledges that superdelegates — despite their status as party leaders — are more bandwagon-jumpers than trailblazers. Many hesitate to publicly announce their endorsement for fear that their candidate flames out.
That tendency heartens Edwards' supporters such as Turlington. Though Edwards' advisers know the odds are tough, they hope to win Ohio, Minnesota and Georgia on Super Tuesday, as well as a big chunk of delegates in New York and California.
They also hope for a four-state Southern sweep the next week to set up a showdown in Illinois on March 16 — a scenario that could bring with it more support from superdelegates.
"This universe is very much in play," Turlington said.
Laurie Moskowitz, a political consultant who ran the Gore campaign's delegate-tracking operation in 2000, said many of the remaining superdelegates will likely wait for Tuesday's results before making a decision.
"From the Edwards' perspective, they should try to convince them to come on board early, and that would be rewarded in some way," Moskowitz said. "On the Kerry side, they should convince superdelegates by saying, 'I will win, this is done."'