WASHINGTON – High-profile Democrats will gather Thursday night to urge party unity behind John Kerry (search), but there are about 740 party loyalists who are pledged, at least on paper, to support a long-departed presidential hopeful.
These Democrats will be delegates to the party's national convention, which is expected to be a celebratory send-off for Kerry, now the presumptive Democratic nominee, as he heads into the fall campaign against President Bush.
But for the hundreds of delegates pledged to Democratic also-rans, the convention may give them one last chance to boast about their first choice for president. Most, however, are expected to vote for the Massachusetts senator in the end.
"Absolutely, I'm behind Senator Kerry 100 percent," said Greg Barker, a bank executive from Copperhill, Tenn., and delegate for retired Gen. Wesley Clark (search). "But until the general chooses to release his delegates, I'm pledged to the general."
Clark, who dropped out of the race in mid-February, finished third behind Kerry and John Edwards in Tennessee's presidential primary and qualified for 18 pledged delegates from the state. Barker is one of them.
"Pledged" delegates are won through primaries or caucuses. They are different from Democratic "superdelegates," elected officials and party leaders who don't have to abide by primary results and can change their minds about whom to support.
A total of 4,322 delegates — pledged delegates and superdelegates — will attend the convention July 26-29 in Boston. An Associated Press tally shows Kerry with 2,376 delegates, well past the 2,162 needed to clinch nomination.
Democratic Party rules call on delegates pledged to a candidate to cast their convention vote "in all good conscience (to) reflect the sentiments of those who elected them."
However, they aren't required to vote for any candidate at the convention. That means delegates for the dropouts — Clark, Edwards and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search) — or even Kerry, are free to vote for someone else, regardless of whether their candidate has "released" them.
If the unity fund-raiser Thursday in Washington is any indication, there's little drama about who will be the nominee. Former Presidents Clinton and Carter, 2000 nominee Al Gore (search) and most of Kerry's former foes are expected to attend and rally support behind Kerry.
But even with the outcome decided for all practical purposes, the also-rans may decide to keep their delegates to reward hardcore supporters with a trip to Beantown. Officially, Clark, Dean and Edwards have "suspended" their campaigns, which allows them to hold on to their delegates.
Some former candidates think keeping their delegates will bring perks at the convention, like a prime speaking slot or more influence over the party's platform, said Matt Bennett, who worked on campaigns for Clark, Clinton and failed 1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis (search)(search).
Activist Al Sharpton (search) has ceded the nomination to Kerry but hopes to continue collecting delegates to promote issues of concern to minority voters, such as affirmative action and cracking down on police brutality, at the convention. He had 22 pledged delegates in the AP tally.
Longshot Dennis Kucinich (search), the only active candidate remaining, shares the same approach and hopes more delegates will help draw attention to his pet issues, trade policy and universal health care. The Ohio congressman had 25 pledged delegates, according to the AP.
"Dennis Kucinich is campaigning because even though Senator Kerry has secured the required number of delegates, the direction of the Democratic platform has not been established," spokesman Andy Juniewicz said.
Front-runners in the past have conceded some input in the platform, though "no front-runner wants to get into a position where they surrender the platform," said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Millersville University.
That doesn't appear to be as much of an issue for Kerry. Clark, Dean and Edwards all have endorsed Kerry and have vowed to help defeat Bush in November.
"There will be some role for the losers, but (the convention) will essentially be a Kerry coronation," Madonna said.