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CHARLESTON, S.C.-On a brisk January morning in Charleston, S.C., a bundled-up tour guide stands at the intersection of Broad and Meeting Streets, pointing out "the four corners of the law" to a handful of shivering tourists: Old City Hall, the federal courthouse, the county courthouse, and the 256-year-old St. Michael's Episcopal Church stand on each corner of the famous intersection.
Just down palm-lined Broad Street, a row of attorneys' offices sits nestled in a cluster of colorful buildings dating back to 1900. From his bay-window perch on the second floor of one of the narrow structures, Waring Howe Jr. (pictured) practices personal injury law in the same office his father purchased for his own law practice in 1949.
To an outsider, Howe's one-man practice in his small, three-room office may seem ordinary. But to Democratic Party insiders, Howe's national influence makes him a sought-after man by some of the most powerful people in politics.
That's because Howe is a member of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and one of an elite group of delegates to the Democratic National Convention known as "super delegates." The 796 super delegates comprise about 20 percent of the 4,049 delegates sent to the Democratic nominating convention this summer, and they hold unique power.
The majority of convention delegates are elected by state parties and are considered "pledged delegates," which means they must vote in the nominating convention for the presidential candidate who won their states' primaries. When a candidate wins a state primary, the delegates he or she picks up are pledged delegates.
But super delegates, or "unpledged delegates," are considered free agents: They aren't bound to their states' choice for a nominee, and they may commit support to any candidate they choose at any time during the primary season. They may also switch their support to another candidate all the way up to the nominating convention. (Republicans have a far smaller number of unpledged delegates who typically vote for the candidate that wins their states' primaries.)
Democrats added super delegates to their nominating process after a series of reforms in the 1970s intended to open the process to more grassroots voters and lessen the influence of some party leaders who wielded inordinate power.
When Sen. George McGovern won the Democratic nomination in 1972, but lost the presidential election in a landslide, Democrats began reforming the rules again to give back a measure of influence to party leaders, designating them as super delegates.
That means that while Democratic candidates wage high-profile battles for ordinary voter support in primary states, a separate campaign is unfolding behind the scenes: the battle for super delegates who can deliver delegate votes before primaries even begin. In an election cycle with a tight Democratic race early in the primary season, super delegates could be a critical piece of a winning strategy.
Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign proved that point early on: By late December, some 158 super delegates had already pledged their support to Clinton, more than a week before the first caucus began. For Clinton, that meant she had already secured 158 delegates toward the 2,025 she needed to win the nomination. Sen. Barack Obama trailed Clinton with about 89 super delegate votes.
By late January, both candidates had picked up more super delegates, but Clinton maintained an 85-vote lead over Obama among super delegates. That created a twist in the race for the nomination: Though Obama had won more pledged delegates than Clinton in state primaries by the end of January, Clinton's super delegate lead meant she still had more delegates than Obama in the overall race.
Since super delegates may change their minds midway through a primary season, and since a majority of super delegates haven't yet endorsed a candidate, Clinton's numbers will likely change. But for now, even a perceived lead in the overall delegate count gives Clinton an advantage in building momentum and persuading others to support her campaign.
From the time they announce their presidential bids, Democratic candidates engage in sophisticated campaigns to woo the broad spectrum of party devotees who make up the super delegate roster. The list includes all Democratic members of Congress; all Democratic governors; all former Democratic presidents, vice presidents and congressional leaders; former DNC chairmen; and members of the DNC, usually chosen by state parties.
The eclectic mix of super delegates makes clinching support easier for some candidates than for others. For example, Clinton enjoyed the immediate support of her super delegate husband, former president Bill Clinton. She also enjoys the super delegate support of her campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe, a former DNC chairman.
Both Clinton and Obama have gained substantial super delegate support in their respective home states of New York and Illinois as well. As current Democratic senators, the two candidates also have super delegate status and may vote for themselves.
Clinton and Obama have each clinched other well-known super delegates. Clinton's support includes former vice president Walter Mondale, while Sens. John Kerry and Edward Kennedy have committed to Obama. Other big-name super delegates remain uncommitted, including former president Jimmy Carter and former vice president Al Gore.
To pick up high-profile super delegates, the candidates have waged aggressive behind-the-scene campaigns. New Mexico governor Bill Richardson told the Los Angeles Times that when he dropped out of the race in early January, his phone immediately buzzed with calls from Clinton, Obama, and former senator John Edwards.
Richardson hasn't committed to a candidate, but said: "There's a massive push for endorsements. It's gone pretty far."
Edwards' campaign manager David Bonior, a former House Democratic whip, courted super delegates for the campaign before Edwards dropped out of the race on Jan. 30. Clinton and Obama have established mini-whip operations within Congress, recruiting House members to sway uncommitted Democratic colleagues, who each hold a super delegate vote.
But it's not just big names that attract the attention of the candidates. Each campaign also courts members of the DNC, who are often less well-known but make up a significant percentage of super delegates.
That means they court people like Fagafaga Daniel Langkilde, a television producer and DNC member on behalf of American Samoa, a U.S. territory in the South Pacific. They've courted super delegate Martha Dixon, a successful fashion designer from Arkadelphia, Ark., and a member of the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame. (Langkilde and Dixon have both pledged their support to Clinton.)
Clinton, Obama, and Edwards also courted Charleston attorney Howe until he announced his endorsement less than a week before South Carolina's Democratic primary.
From his office on Broad Street, Howe readily tells visitors to Charleston what they should eat (She-Crab soup), what they should see (the historic waterfront), and what they should buy (sweetgrass baskets handmade by locals). The chairman of the Charleston County Democratic Party also tells fellow Democrats which candidate he thinks they should vote for: Sen. Barack Obama.
Clinching Howe's endorsement and super delegate support was a hard-fought win for Obama. "His staff worked on me very effectively," Howe told WORLD.
For the Obama campaign, working on Howe meant inviting the delegate to small gatherings with the candidate, extending phone calls from high-level campaign officials, and even making sure Howe's wife got a good seat at a campaign rally featuring Obama and Oprah Winfrey in Columbia, S.C.
Clinton and Edwards courted Howe as well, though not as aggressively as Obama. Howe took his endorsement decision seriously: "I studied for this more than I ever studied for a law school exam."
In the end, Howe decided Obama stands the best chance of winning in November, and believes he could unite the country. When Obama called Howe from a plane on the way to Nevada in mid-January, Howe told the senator he was in.
Traditionally, the Democratic nomination is decided long before the national convention in August. During the primary process, one candidate typically emerges as a clear frontrunner and gains enough delegates to clinch the nomination. When that happens, super delegates usually throw their support behind the obvious nominee, even if that means withdrawing their support from another candidate.
This means super delegates usually serve an important role in endorsing candidates during the primary process, but don't typically play a decisive role in the outcome at the convention. David Rohde, a political scientist at Duke University, told WORLD he expects this scenario to unfold again this year and thinks the mega-batch of Democratic primaries on Feb. 5 could be decisive in handing one candidate a majority of delegates.
But the Democrats' rules of awarding delegates proportionally could complicate the winnowing process. Democratic primaries award delegates based on the percentage of votes a candidate receives in the contest: For example, if Clinton wins 50 percent of the vote, she wins approximately 50 percent of the state's delegates. If Obama wins 40 percent of the vote in the same state, he wins 40 percent of the state's delegates.
(Republicans favor winner-take-all primaries, with the exception of a few key contests.)
In Democratic primaries with a close finish, candidates can end up with nearly identical numbers of delegates. For example, Obama won the Iowa caucuses and 16 delegates, but Clinton clinched 15 delegates of her own in the state. Clinton won the New Hampshire primary and nine delegates, but the second-place Obama clinched nine delegates as well.
If Clinton and Obama continued to garner similar numbers of delegates throughout the primary season, it's possible that super delegates could put one candidate over the top.
It's happened at least once before: In 1984, presidential candidate Walter Mondale confidently promised he would sew up the Democratic nomination by June 6. When he fell about 40 delegates short in an unexpectedly tight race with Sen. Gary Hart, Mondale's aides hit the phones to super delegates and pulled out the nomination that day.
Rohde doesn't expect that close a finish on either the Democratic or Republican side, but he notes that the GOP competition is complicated as well: With several viable contenders in the race, candidates have been splitting the number of delegates they need to win the nomination, and each could fall short of a majority.
With 20-plus contests looming for both parties on Feb. 5, Rohde thinks it's unlikely the field will remain so close. But he also concedes that unlikely events do happen in politics. "It was extremely unlikely that the Republicans would take control of the House in 1994," he said. "But they did."
Super delegate timeline
1960s: No uniform primary system exists. Democratic Party heavyweights like Chicago Mayor Richard Daley work backroom deals and wield inordinate power in influencing the nomination process.
Early 1970s: The Democratic Party reforms rules to open up the nominating process and create a uniform primary and caucus system that gives more influence to a wider spectrum of voters, including grassroots activists and minorities.
1972: Sen. George McGovern wins the Democratic nomination, but loses the general election in a disastrous landslide: McGovern wins only one state and the District of Columbia.
1982: The Democratic Party reforms rules again, creating super delegates to give elected party officials more influence in the nomination process. Officials hope the move will help them retain a measure of control in selecting a nominee in sync with the party and viable in general elections.
1984: In a tighter-than-expected race with Democratic opponent Gary Hart, presidential candidate Walter Mondale woos enough super delegates on June 6 to clinch the nomination early.
2008: In another tighter-than-expected race, opponents Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have waged intense campaigns to secure super delegates early in an unpredictable contest.