Sen. Barack Obama got a front-runner’s welcome back at the Capitol Thursday, pressing congressional “superdelegates” to support him in a visit that had the look and feel of a campaign victory lap.
On the House floor, he was quickly surrounded by well-wishers calling him, “Mr. President” and reaching out to pat him on the back or shake his hand. The glad-handers included a few Republicans and supporters of his Democratic presidential rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
He picked up the superdelegate support of at least two lawmakers: Rep. Brad Miller of North Carolina, where Obama handily won the primary on Tuesday, and Rep. Rick Larsen of Washington state.
Obama predicted he would lose the next two contests to Clinton — West Virginia and Kentucky — but said he expected to win other states. His presence here underscored the nomination math: The remaining six primaries and their 217 delegates are not what matters most in the winding-down campaign.
More important are the 260-plus superdelegates who are yet to be claimed and are not bound by the outcome of any state’s vote. Although Obama cannot be caught in the race for primary delegates, neither can he win the nomination without the backing of more superdelegates.
“Our goal is going to be to try to be to bring the party together as soon as possible,” Obama said as he walked through the Capitol after his visit to the House with a swarm of reporters jostling to question him. “But we still have contests remaining, and so in no way am I taking this for granted. We’re going to have to keep on working.”
About a third of the undeclared superdelegates are members of Congress, which is why Obama spent the day away from the campaign trail on Capitol Hill.
“My main message is that whichever way you want to go, the sooner that superdelegates make their decision the sooner we will have a sense of who the nominee will be and sooner we can focus on John McCain,” Obama told the Fox News Channel outside his Senate office.
The Associated Press has contacted nearly 100 undeclared superdelegates since the Tuesday elections and has found that many see Obama as the likely nominee but are reluctant to make a public commitment until after the final states hold their votes June 3.
“There are no undecided superdelegates, there are really only undeclared superdelegates,” uncommitted Democratic National Committee member Edward Espinoza of California said in an interview with AP Television. “And what many people have to deal with in this process is grappling professional and political interests when they make a declaration.”
Clinton, who was campaigning from West Virginia to Oregon on Thursday, had done her own courting of undeclared members of Congress a day earlier. Florida Rep. Tim Mahoney said he met one-on-one with her for about 30 minutes but didn’t plan to commit to a candidate any time soon.
“As a businessman, you don’t make a decision until you have to because you get the benefit of more information,” he said. He added that he also wanted to push issues important to Florida and said the best way to get the candidates to listen was to stay uncommitted.
Rep. Miller, who endorsed Obama on Thursday, said, the Illinois senator had seized the opportunity to fulfill Americans’ desire for change in Washington.
“If Senator Obama and Democratic candidates up and down the ticket win this year and then deliver next year, we can build a consensus that will last a generation,” Miller said.
Clinton can count on the backing of one more superdelegate if she gets to the convention. A spokeswoman for Indiana Rep. Brad Ellsworth, Liz Farrar, said he won’t officially endorse either candidate but he would cast his vote for the way his district went. Clinton won it on Tuesday.
Ellsworth is a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of moderate Democrats with 21 undeclared superdelegates among them that both Clinton and Obama are trying to sway. Obama was meeting with some of the Blue Dogs in offices a couple of blocks from the Capitol Thursday morning when they got called for a vote and he decided to go along.
Pennsylvania Rep. Bob Brady, another undeclared superdelegate, said he invited Obama to come to the floor when the Illinois senator called him earlier in the morning and said he’d be on the Hill. He said Obama calls him often “to chit chat,” as do Hillary and Bill Clinton.
“I said, `You ought to pop on by, come over and say hello,'” Brady said. “You have to go where votes are.”
He said Obama walked up and thanked him for suggesting he stop by. “I said don’t feel so flattered, I gave the same advice to Hillary,” Brady said with a laugh.
Members of the Senate are free to visit the House floor whenever they like. Obama was asked whether it was appropriate for him to campaign there, and he responded, “I wasn’t campaigning. I was saying hello.”
He greeted uncommitted Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina with a deep curtsy. Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., got a handshake, and Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., got a friendly shoulder-slap. All are undeclared. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who is staying neutral, got a peck on the cheek.
New York Rep. Yvette Clark had the candidate sign her copy of the New York Daily News with a picture of a smiling Obama and the headline, “It’s His Party.” Reps. Alcee Hastings of Florida and Greg Meeks of New York, who like Clark are Clinton backers from the Black Caucus, greeted Obama with hugs.
Rep. Dale Kildee, a Clinton supporter who has had his superdelegate status stripped because his home state of Michigan voted too early, said he got Obama’s assurance that he would seat Michigan at the convention. Kildee said he’s suggested to the Clinton campaign that they think about the impact of continuing her campaign.
“I suggested that she sit down with her very top people and analyze the effect on the party and the country,” Kildee said. He said he didn’t suggest that she end her race or make any recommendation beyond that.
Mahoney said he pressed Clinton to help Florida, which also lost its delegates because it voted too early. Clinton won both contests after she and the other candidates agreed to boycott them because they were in violation of the national party rules. But she’s now hoping the delegates will be seated to help her uphill battle to overtake Obama’s lead, and she sent a letter to Obama Thursday asking him to help her honor the votes from the two states.
“It is not enough to simply seat their representatives at the convention in Denver,” she wrote. “The people of these great states, like the people who have voted and are to vote in other states, must have a voice in selecting our party’s nominee.”
Associated Press writers Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Kim Hefling and Liz Sidoti in Washington, Mike Baker in Raleigh, N.C., and Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Fla., contributed to this report.