- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Political junkies nationwide are increasingly speculating that the Democratic presidential nominee might not be selected until this summer’s party convention.

But anyone hoping for a return of the old-fashioned brokered convention, in which a victor is anointed only after days of raucous floor debate and backroom deals with delegates, will be greatly disappointed, most political analysts say.

“I know there’s a lot of talk about it, but I don’t see it as very likely,” said Leon Panetta, former chief of staff to President Clinton and a longtime former House member. “We’ve gotten away from the kingmakers that used to basically control conventions and control how votes were made — those people that were respected enough by the elders of the party that could pretty much cut a deal.”

For a Democratic presidential candidate to earn the nomination, he or she must win 2,025 of the party’s delegates nationwide. Most are called “pledged delegates,” meaning they support the candidate who won their state. But included are almost 800 “unpledged delegates” — often called “superdelegates — who are not bound by primary or caucus results and are free to support whomever they wish.

Decades ago, unpledged delegates — mostly party leaders and elected officials — often remained uncommitted until the convention, playing one candidate against another in order to secure political favors. But in recent decades, individual candidates and their senior advisers instead play the role of political power brokers, wooing unpledged delegates months before the convention.

“This could be the one race where it really lies on the ability of the campaign staff of each candidate to analyze exactly what’s needed to get the support they need,” said Mr. Panetta, who heads the Panetta Institute, a California think tank. “Their cell-phone bills are going to be high and their airplane bills are going to be high, because this is going to be a one-on-one operation” between candidates and unpledged delegates.

In recent elections, unpledged delegates typically have supported the candidate who carried their state.

“A large number of [unpledged delegates] already have [committed support to a candidate], and most of the others will at some point before the convention,” said Michael Tanner, an analyst with the Cato Institute, a libertarian Washington think tank. “The chances of them changing their mind at the last minute … is not likely.”

The Democratic Party, unlike Republicans, prohibits winner-take-all primaries and caucuses, instead awarding pledged delegates proportionately in each state among all candidates winning at least 15 percent of the vote. So a candidate could “lose” a state, but win nearly as many delegates as the winner.

“The fact that a person finishes one or two percentage points ahead may provide bragging rights, but it might not score you much of an overall gain,” said Bill Galston, a senior fellow with the liberal Washington think tank the Brookings Institution, and a former policy adviser to Mr. Clinton.

But while proportional representation of delegates makes it difficult for a front-runner in a tight race to significantly widen his or her lead, it also makes it equally tough for a trailing candidate to catch up.

Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards’ withdrawal from the Democratic race last month, which left only Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York competing for the nomination, also diminishes the possibility of the contest heading into the convention without a clear leader.

A three-way race would increase the likelihood that the front-runner would fail to receive a necessary simple majority of 2,025 delegates, thus requiring a deal, or deals, among the candidates and delegates to choose a winner.

“But with Edwards out, [Mr. Obama or Mrs. Clinton] pretty much should end up with at least 51 percent of the delegates,” Mr. Tanner said. “If John Edwards was in the race, the likelihood of a brokered convention would be fairly strong.”

Still, the race is much closer at this point than most experts predicted. A true Democratic front-runner isn’t likely to emerge until at least March 4, when Texas and Ohio hold primaries.

“That looks like when we might know something,” Mr. Tanner said.

Florida and Michigan, which had their delegates stripped after the states’ Democratic parties moved their primaries ahead of Feb. 5, violating national party rules, could still play a role in crowning an eventual winner — if the Clinton campaign has it way. Mrs. Clinton, who won both states, is pressuring the national party to recognize the results from Florida and Michigan at the summer convention.

Clinton aides said yesterday that predictions were those two contests would yield few voters, but apparently voters “didn’t get the memo” and instead showed up in record numbers.

“They expect their votes to count,” said Clinton strategist Mark Penn.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean stressed on CNN yesterday the party is staying out of the fight over Florida and Michigan for the time being.

National party rules stipulate that Michigan and Florida delegates cannot count toward the nomination contest unless state officials in Michigan and Florida petition the Democratic National Committee and then hold a new election.

Christina Bellantoni contributed to this article.

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