WASHINGTON – New Hampshire and Iowa will have to wait.
The nation's first presidential primary, for Democrats anyway, is being waged among hundreds of party insiders — superdelegates who could play a big part in selecting the nominee at next summer's national convention.
So far, most of them still haven't been sold on any of the candidates.
The Associated Press contacted 90 percent of the 765 superdelegates, mostly elected officials and other party officers, who are free to support anyone they choose at the convention, regardless of what happens in the primaries.
Hillary Rodham Clinton leads Barack Obama by more than a 2-1 margin among those who have endorsed a candidate. But a little more than half of those contacted — 365 — said they haven't settled on a Democratic standard bearer.
"The fact that under half have publicly committed shows me how open the Democratic race still is," said Jenny Backus, a Democratic consultant who is not affiliated with any campaign. "It's a sign that the race isn't totally done in many people's minds."
Clinton has the endorsement of 169 superdelegates. She is followed by Obama, 63; John Edwards, 34; Bill Richardson, 25; Chris Dodd, 17; Joe Biden, 8, and Dennis Kucinich, 2.
Superdelegates tend to support the front-runner, said David Rohde, a political scientist at Duke University. "They want to be on the winning side," he said.
So why don't more of them back Clinton, who leads in national polls?
"They are still concerned about her ability to win the general election," Rohde said.
He said Clinton's high negative numbers among likely voters have many party insiders skittish. However, he added, if Clinton sweeps the early voting in Iowa and New Hampshire, "these people will flock to her."
On the other hand, a spokeswoman for Obama expressed confidence he would pick up superdelegates after doing well in early voting states. "We are pleased with our current support in the DNC and know that as the states go, so will superdelegates," said Jen Psaki.
Superdelegates are the ultimate party insiders, including all Democratic members of Congress, as well as a number of other elected officials and members of the Democratic National Committee. They will attend the convention next summer with about 3,200 other delegates who have been pledged to various presidential candidates based on the outcomes of primaries and party caucuses in their states.
Democratic candidates need a little more than 2,000 delegates to claim the nomination. That can make the superdelegates, who will number about 800 after state parties select a few more this summer, important players in choosing a nominee.
The Republicans have far fewer unaffiliated delegates, a little more than 100, making Democratic superdelegates a unique political force.
Don Fowler, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said many superdelegates delay public endorsements because they don't want alienate the other candidates.
"It's a club and they don't like to offend their fellow club members until they have to," said Fowler, himself an uncommitted superdelegate from South Carolina.
Nevertheless, Fowler was surprised that Richardson, Dodd and Biden had such little support, despite so many years in public office. Dodd and Biden are both longtime senators, and Richardson, the governor of New Mexico, has served in Congress and as a member of former President Clinton's Cabinet.
"That's just astounding to me," Fowler said. "The (superdelegates) know these people, and they've known them for years."
Four of the Democratic candidates are senators: Clinton from New York, Obama from Illinois, Dodd from Connecticut and Biden from Delaware. A fifth, Edwards, is a former senator from North Carolina. Yet 33 of the 49 Democratic senators, who are all superdelegates, remain uncommitted. Clinton, with 10 senators in her corner, is the only candidate with endorsements from more than two, according to the AP survey.
They all, however, have more superdelegates than Kucinich, who has only one not named Kucinich.
Jon Ausman, a DNC member from Tallahassee, Fla., said he likes the congressman from Cleveland because of his steadfast opposition to the war in Iraq, his support for universal health care and his opposition to NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.
And, Ausman said, his mom lives in Cleveland, and Kucinich's staff helped her when she had a problem with her Medicare benefits.
"He saved my mom's life." Ausman said. "He gets my vote."
Ausman's vote might not count because the national party has stripped Florida of all of its delegates for holding its Jan. 29 primary before Feb. 5.
That would leave Kucinich with just one superdelegate so far — himself.