In a fresh sign of trouble for Hillary Rodham Clinton, one of the former first lady’s congressional black supporters intends to vote for Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention, and a second, more prominent lawmaker is openly discussing a possible switch.
Rep. David Scott’s defection and Rep. John Lewis’ remarks highlight one of the challenges confronting Clinton in a campaign that pits a black man against a woman for a nomination that historically has been the exclusive property of white men.
“You’ve got to represent the wishes of your constituency,” Scott said in an interview Wednesday in the Capitol. “My proper position would be to vote the wishes of my constituents.” The third-term lawmaker represents a district that gave more than 80 percent of its vote to Obama in the Feb. 5 Georgia primary.
Lewis, whose Atlanta-area district voted 3-to-1 for Obama, said he is not ready to abandon his backing for the former first lady. But several associates said the nationally known civil rights figure has become increasingly torn about his early endorsement of Clinton. They spoke on condition of anonymity, citing private conversations.
In an interview, Lewis likened Obama to Robert F. Kennedy in his ability to generate campaign excitement, and left open the possibility he might swing behind the Illinois senator. “It could (happen). There’s no question about it. It could happen with a lot of people … we can count and we see the clock,” he said.
Clinton’s recent string of eight primary and caucus defeats coincides with an evident shift in momentum in the contest for support from party officials who will attend the convention. The former first lady still holds a sizable lead among the roughly 800 so-called superdelegates, who are chosen outside the primary and caucus system.
But Christine Samuels, until this week a Clinton superdelegate from New Jersey, said during the day she is now supporting Obama.
Two other superdelegates, Sophie Masloff of Pennsylvania and Nancy Larson of Minnesota, are uncommitted, having dropped their earlier endorsements of Clinton.
On Wednesday, David Wilhelm, a longtime ally of the Clintons who had been neutral in the presidential race, endorsed Obama.
The comments by Scott and Lewis reflect pressure on Clinton’s black supporters, particularly elected officials, not to stand in the way of what is plainly the best chance in history to have an African-American president.
“Nobody could see this” in advance, Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the highest-ranking black in Congress, said of Obama’s emergence. He is officially neutral in the race, but expressed his irritation earlier in the year with remarks that Clinton and her husband the former president had made about civil rights history.
One black supporter of Clinton, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, said he remains committed to her. “There’s nothing going on right now that would cause me to” change, he said.
He said any suggestion that elected leaders should follow their voters “raises the age old political question. Are we elected to monitor where our constituents are … or are we to use our best judgment to do what’s in the best interests of our constituents.”
In an interview, Cleaver offered a glimpse of private conversations.
He said Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois had recently asked him “if it comes down to the last day and you’re the only superdelegate? … Do you want to go down in history as the one to prevent a black from winning the White House?
“I told him I’d think about it,” Cleaver concluded.
Jackson, an Obama supporter, confirmed the conversation, and said the dilemma may pose a career risk for some black politicians. “Many of these guys have offered their support to Mrs. Clinton, but Obama has won their districts. So you wake up without the carpet under your feet. You might find some young primary challenger placing you in a difficult position” in the future, he added.
Obama and Clinton are in a competitive race for convention delegates. Overall, he has 1,276 in The Associated Press count, and she has 1,220. It takes 2,025 to clinch the nomination.
But the overall totals mask two distinct trends.
Obama has won 1,112 delegates in primaries and caucuses, and Clinton has won 979 in the same contests in the AP count.
The former first lady leads in the superdelegate chase, 241-164.
Not surprisingly, two sides differ on the proper role of the superdelegates.
“My strong belief is that if we end up with the most states and the most pledged delegates, and the most voters in the country, then it would be problematic for political insiders to overturn the judgment of the voters,” Obama said recently.
But Clinton said superdelegates should make up their own minds. She noted pointedly that Massachusetts Sens. John Kerry and Edward Kennedy have both endorsed Obama, yet she won the state handily on Feb. 5.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, who is neutral in the race, said she hopes one or the other of the rivals emerges as the clear winner through the primaries and caucuses.
“I don’t think it was ever intended that superdelegates would overturn the verdict, the decision of the American people,” she said Thursday.