WASHINGTON - Fresh from a big primary election win Tuesday, Barack Obama yesterday won another victory among the undeclared superdelegates who now represent the most important remaining battleground in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Obama's camp said it had picked up the support of three previously undeclared superdelegates, as well as one who had defected from Senator Hillary Clinton.
But Clinton vowed to stay in the race and fight on and asked Capitol Hill superdelegates to back her. But she only managed to add one superdelegate to her ranks.
In a race that requires 2,025 delegates to sew up the nomination, a net gain of three delegates isn't much. But the announcement reflects a pattern that has proved very powerful for the Obama campaign - disclosing its superdelegates in a steady, campaign-saving drip.
"It's like rationing water in California," said Chris Lehane, a San Francisco-based Democratic consultant not affiliated with a presidential campaign. "Has the Obama campaign been strategically, and smartly, rationing the flow of their superdelegates? Well, you certainly have the impression that every time they've been in a bad spot, they have been able to pull out a couple of superdelegates as a bulwark."
The Obama camp yesterday was within 178 1/2 delegates of sealing the nomination after a net pickup of about a dozen in primaries the previous day in North Carolina and Indiana. With just 217 elected delegates at stake in the remaining six races, the focus in both campaigns is increasingly on winning over the 265 or so still undeclared Democratic superdelegates, one by one.
The Obama campaign declined to discuss superdelegate strategy, and Obama superdelegates on Capitol Hill smile enigmatically when asked if the endorsements have been scheduled for dramatic effect.
"In view of [Clinton's] wish to prolong what I think is the inevitable, I think the campaign is setting its strategy accordingly," said Representative Paul Hodes, a New Hampshire Democrat who was among the first House lawmakers to back Obama.
But political specialists not associated with the campaign see a striking pattern. Soon after an ebullient Clinton won Pennsylvania by nearly 10 points, Obama announced that three more superdelegates had joined his camp. When the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's incendiary comments were bringing Obama down in the polls, making him look vulnerable, Obama's campaign offered a two-fer: a former Clinton superdelegate - who was also a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee - had very publicly switched his allegiance from Clinton to Obama.
And yesterday, when a politically wounded Clinton announced that she had won the superdelegate vote of North Carolina Democratic Representative Heath Shuler, within an hour, the Obama campaign revealed the Illinois senator had picked up four more superdelegates.
"I think people come in [as supporters], and I think the campaign orchestrates their announcements," said Tad Devine, a veteran Democratic strategist not working for either presidential contender.
Now, the Obama campaign faces an unusual balancing act: It wants to show its support is growing, but without embarrassing or alienating Clinton so that she will work with Obama if she does lose the race.
"Right now, I think the Obama campaign has a lot more incoming," but is deliberately not unveiling them all at once, Devine said. "I don't think they want to muscle Hillary Clinton out of the race," Devine added. "They have to be really concerned about how they win it. If he is perceived as having shoved her out, that could be bad."
George McGovern, the former senator and onetime Democratic nominee for president, who is not a superdelegate, yesterday switched his support from Clinton to Obama, and said Clinton should quit the race. But most Obama supporters, aware of sowing possible resentment against their candidate, said they would not pressure her to concede to Obama.
"It would be inappropriate and awkward and wrong for any of us to tell Senator Clinton when it is time for the race to be over," said Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri. "This is her decision, and it is only her decision."
Clinton insisted yesterday that she would continue the fight, despite a double-digit loss in North Carolina and a narrow victory in Indiana that made it virtually impossible for her to surpass Obama among pledged delegates or the popular vote in the remaining six races through June 3.
"I'm staying in this race until there's a nominee," Clinton told reporters yesterday at a campaign stop in Shepherdstown, W.Va. Clinton hopes to convince superdelegates that her base of support in the primaries - older women, Latinos, and working-class whites - are a critical element to a November Democratic victory.
But the results on Tuesday were likely to make it harder for the New York senator to convince enough superdelegates that Obama is a weak general-election candidate, and there were signs this week that her campaign is struggling.
Clinton has lent her campaign another $6.4 million of her own money since mid-April, bring her total personal financial contribution to more than $11 million - nearly the total she has earned in the past eight years from book sales and her Senate salary.
Exit polls showed Obama making some inroads among women - he captured a majority of the female vote in North Carolina - and gaining even bigger percentages of the African-American vote.
Clinton's dismal showing among black voters - 7 percent in North Carolina, and 11 percent in Indiana - have some Democrats worried that African-Americans might not turn out to vote if Clinton were made the nominee over Obama.
Clinton is also escalating her demands that delegates in Michigan and Florida - both of which broke DNC rules by holding early primaries - should have their delegates seated. But that tactic may backfire, said Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a think tank.
"My belief is that Senator Clinton's efforts to put Florida and Michigan back into play have hurt her terribly with the superdelegates in the other 48 states," Rosenberg said.
"They don't want the states that didn't play by the rules rewarded for breaking the rules."
Both campaigns have been meeting with superdelegates in a frantic effort to win enough support to put them over the top. Neither Obama nor Clinton will be able to secure the nomination without the support of superdelegates.
Steve Grossman, a Clinton superdelegate and Massachusetts-based Democratic fund-raiser, said he is not asking superdelegates to make the commitment now to back Clinton, but is instead urging them to hold off on making an endorsement until the primary season is completed.
At that point, Grossman said, the Clinton campaign will need to make a detailed case to superdelegates that Clinton would be a stronger contender against presumptive GOP nominee John McCain in swing states.
"I recognize that the math is challenging," Grossman said. But he said he would continue to press superdelegates to give Clinton some time to finish the primaries and make her argument to the remaining superdelegates.
Tuesday's results "were disappointing, but it does not in any way, shape, or form deter my enthusiasm to reach out to them."