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Backroom Primary: Bill Clinton Courts California

Former President Bill Clinton told Democratic superdelegates and activists on Sunday that they should "chill out" about selecting a nominee, and that the protracted primary election contest would not hurt the party's chances in November.

His wife, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, trails rival Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in pledged delegates, and prominent Democrats have called on her to drop out of the race. She has responded by saying she will take her fight for the nomination all the way to the national convention in August.

It was left to Bill Clinton to convince California Democrats this weekend that this was a good thing.

"Don't you let anybody tell you that somehow we are weakening the Democratic Party by telling the people in Pennsylvania and North Carolina and Indiana and Kentucky and West Virginia and Montana and South Dakota and Oregon and Puerto Rico that they count, too," Clinton said in San Jose at the state party's annual convention.

"We are strengthening the Democratic Party. Chill out. We are going to win this election," he said.

Clinton addressed more than 2,000 activists, but his real target audience was a smaller group of nearly two dozen party stalwarts who are undeclared superdelegates.

Before his speech, Clinton met privately with many of those who have yet to declare allegiance to either candidate. Superdelegates are the roughly 800 party members who can vote for a candidate regardless of the popular vote; many are also politicians, including governors or members of Congress.

Crystal Strait, the head of the California Young Democrats, said she had already spoken with campaign surrogates and candidates before Clinton's visit to San Jose.

"I had a great conversation with Sen. Clinton. I've spoken with her daughter. Sen. Daschle called me on behalf of Sen. Obama," Strait said.

The courting process is nothing but talk, superdelegates say. They aren't offered flowers or chocolates or Lakers tickets. Superdelegate Steven Ybarra, who is on the Democratic National Committee, says he couldn't even persuade anyone to buy him a beer the previous night.

Superdelegates may remain undecided for different reasons. For her part, Straight said she does not see her choice of candidate as a personal decision.

"It's about my judgment to weigh what's best for the youth in America, and that's at the end of the day how I'll make my decision," she said.

Ybarra said he will throw his support to the candidate who commits to a concrete plan for increasing outreach to Latinos.

"There's no reason for Latinos on the DNC to go to that convention to vote for a candidate until there's a strong commitment to what that candidate's going to do for us," Ybarra said. "And I'll tell you something, I'm willing to hold out until the third vote."

The idea that it would take three or more ballots at the national convention to choose a nominee is anathema to the party leadership. DNC Chairman Howard Dean has asked superdelegates to make their decisions by July 1.

In San Jose, many uncommitted superdelegates remained uncommitted even after their meetings with the former president.

"President Clinton was very focused on the fact that we have time and that there is a process," said Strait, who noted he did not seem to be pushing them that hard to make a decision.

If a large block of superdelegates remains uncommitted, it could bolster Hillary Clinton's argument that she has a reason to continue her fight for the nomination.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ina Jaffe
Ina Jaffe is a veteran NPR correspondent covering the aging of America. Her stories on Morning Edition and All Things Considered have focused on older adults' involvement in politics and elections, dating and divorce, work and retirement, fashion and sports, as well as issues affecting long term care and end of life choices. In 2015, she was named one of the nation's top "Influencers in Aging" by PBS publication Next Avenue, which wrote "Jaffe has reinvented reporting on aging."