Throughout the Democratic primary race, Barack Obama has cast himself as an underdog trying to wrest the nomination from the grip of the party establishment, which he contends is partial to rival Hillary Clinton.
But it is Obama, a first-term Illinois senator running against the conventions of Washington, who is increasingly benefitting from institutional support - bolstering his campaign during a rough month when he lost two key primaries and faced questions about his spiritual mentor.
Obama yesterday picked up the endorsement of yet another US senator, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, the latest in a slew of superdelegates - Democratic politicians and party activists who will help determine the nominee - to throw their weight behind him. A group of as many as seven US House members from North Carolina, which holds a key primary on May 6, is poised to announce its support for Obama in the coming days, The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday.
Clinton still leads Obama among committed superdelegates 250 to 217, but Obama has been steadily closing the gap. Since Super Tuesday on Feb. 5, a total of 64 superdelegates have announced their support for Obama, compared with just nine for Clinton, who has also been aggressively courting them. That trend is increasing pressure on Clinton, who trails Obama in two other important benchmarks - total delegates and the overall popular vote - to consider stepping aside.
What has been striking over the past month is that Obama has racked up key endorsements during a relatively turbulent period in his candidacy. The endorsements - Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania are two of the most influential - have given him a strong underpinning after Clinton's big wins in the March 4 Ohio and Texas primaries, and amid bruising press coverage of his relationship with his controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.
"It's pretty clear that in the last couple weeks the Obama argument seems to have been more persuasive with those superdelegates than the Clinton argument, even in the face of the questions that were raised about Obama," said Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist who worked on Senator John F. Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign but is neutral this election. "Whether that's going to continue as we get new primary results from other states, that remains to be seen."
Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, who is supporting Clinton, said, "The issue is, does it become a cascade? I think right now it has not reached that level."
Lehane said that Clinton is, however, facing a growing impatience among many in the party who want to settle on a nominee and start focusing on the presumptive Republican nominee, Senator John McCain of Arizona.
Of the nearly 800 superdelegates overall, roughly 330 remain undecided. Because neither Obama nor Clinton can reach the 2,024-delegate threshold required to win the nomination without superdelegates, that group of 330 will almost certainly determine who will represent the party against McCain. A growing number of party leaders are urging the undeclared superdelegates to anoint a nominee soon after the last scheduled primaries June 3.
Klobuchar's endorsement gives Obama a 17-13 edge over Clinton among their fellow Democratic senators, according to a superdelegate tally by The Politico website. Clinton holds a narrow lead among House members, partly thanks to overwhelming support from the Democratic delegation from New York, her home state. Obama has won the support of more Democratic governors, but Clinton still enjoys an advantage among party activists in the Democratic National Committee.
"I am endorsing Barack because he is a new kind of leader - speaking with a different voice, bringing a new perspective and inspiring a real excitement from the American people," Klobuchar said in a statement, adding that her decision "reflects both Barack's strong support in my state and my own independent judgment about his abilities."
Klobuchar's statement touches on a political dilemma for superdelegates: Do they pick a candidate based on the will of voters in their states or districts, or on their own assessment of who would make a stronger candidate?
Before Obama began cutting into Clinton's lead among superdelegates in recent weeks, he and his campaign suggested that superdelegates ought to endorse based on how their states voted. But once Obama began picking up key superdelegates from states he did not win - including Kerry and Senator Edward M. Kennedy in Massachusetts, where Clinton won handily on Feb. 5 - that argument faded.
Though every superdelegate matters in a close race, Obama's most significant recent endorsements are Richardson, whose stature in the Democratic Party lends his preference additional weight, and Casey, a freshman senator who hails from a well-known Democratic family in Pennsylvania, where Obama is trailing Clinton by double digits in the polls heading into the state's pivotal April 22 primary.
Clinton's biggest-name superdelegate endorsement recently was Representative John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, a former Marine and one of the most outspoken opponents of the Iraq war.
Stephen Ansolabehere, a professor of political science at MIT, said Obama needed to increase his support among Democratic Party leaders to avoid the fate of former senator Gary Hart, who lost his 1984 presidential bid to Walter Mondale in part because Mondale had a significant edge among superdelegates.
"The campaign was starting to have a 1984 feel to it," Ansolabehere said. "This is something they had to do."
William E. Nelson Jr., a professor of political science at Ohio State University, said the shift in superdelegate support toward Obama reflects a belief among leading Democrats that Obama would have a better chance in November.
In a Gallup poll released yesterday, 59 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of Republicans said they believed Obama would be the stronger nominee in November.
"Part of Clinton's strategy was to convince people that Obama was not electable," Nelson said. "But given the kind of campaign that he has run and the grass-roots support he is receiving, he seems to be far more electable than she is."
Scott Helman can be reached at email@example.com.