Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has built a big lead among Pennsylvania's Democratic superdelegates -- that exclusive group of elected officials and party insiders who may end up determining the outcome of this fiercely fought 2008 presidential campaign -- but, with 11 of 26 undecided, it could still turn out to be a horse race between her and Sen. Barack Obama.
Mrs. Clinton now has 13 Pennsylvania superdelegates in her column -- compared with two for Mr. Obama -- according to a telephone survey by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last week. (One superdelegate could not be reached.)
"Right now, that is a real statement in favor of Hillary Clinton," said U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Philadelphia. "If that group goes for her, that will be very significant."
A shift either way by the group of undecideds could either give Mrs. Clinton a significant boost or put Mr. Obama over the top, as both scramble for the 2,025 delegates -- super and otherwise -- needed to win their party's nomination.
Nationwide, according to lists provided by the campaigns to the New York Times, Mrs. Clinton now has 256 superdelegates and Mr. Obama 170.
After years of obscurity, superdelegates -- who have grown in number since they were created in 1981 to a current total of about 800 -- have suddenly become very important. Former Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff, 90, who is undecided, says she's been courted assiduously, deluged with calls from both sides.
"It's very difficult to make a decision now," said Mrs. Masloff, who denied reports that she had supported Mrs. Clinton earlier before deciding, in effect, to undecide. "But I may end up supporting her [Mrs. Clinton] before long."
Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, who is also uncommitted, said he hasn't heard from the Clinton campaign, but has met twice with Mr. Obama and once with Mr. Obama's wife, Michelle, in Philadelphia. He said he will remain neutral until after the Texas, Ohio and Mississippi primaries in early and mid-March.
Even those superdelegates already committed to a candidate are getting special treatment.
Former Allegheny County Jury Commissioner Jean Milko, who long ago announced her support for Mrs. Clinton -- "I've known her since she had the pageboy and the headbands on," Mrs. Milko said -- has been plugged into conference calls with the New York senator, as recently as Monday.
"She was probably on for about ten minutes, and she sounded very strong, very good," said Mrs. Milko, who said she first met Mrs. Clinton in 1992, "when she came here to campaign for her husband [Bill Clinton] and rode with me and [former mayor and county commissioner] Pete Flaherty in the back of a van to the 28th Ward spaghetti dinner in Forest Hills. I remember we were laughing like crazy."
Mrs. Milko certainly fits the profile of the superdelegate Clinton supporter: She's an older female and a longtime party operative, as is Rena Baumgartner, from the central part of the state.
Mrs. Baumgartner dismissed claims by the Obama campaign last week that Mrs. Clinton was hopelessly behind in the delegate count and that she'd have to win several large states by huge margins and all superdelegates in order to get on an even footing with the Illinois senator.
"If they can win the most delegates, fine and dandy," she said, noting that Mrs. Clinton is leading in the polls in union-rich states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Mr. Obama's campaign "shouldn't count their chickens before they're hatched, " she said.
Mr. Altmire, for one, says he isn't enjoying his neutral status.
"I never envisioned Pennsylvania playing a role and never gave a thought endorsing anybody until it became clear I would have to," he said. "First, as a superdelegate, I'm supposed to give my own opinion. But as an elected official, I'm supposed to represent my congressional district, which isn't just Democrats, but the whole district.
"I also believe that I have a moral obligation to let the public know where I stand, and if I like one better than the other, do I support that candidate regardless of the political impact? Also, because I'm a freshman, I'm not the biggest dog in this fight."
While wavering superdelegates remain the focus of attention behind the scenes, several politically powerful Pennsylvania superdelegates who happen to be supporters of Mrs. Clinton -- including AFSCME President Gerald McEntee -- are scouting outside the state's borders, urging the party to seat Florida's and Michigan's delegates at the Democratic National Convention in August. When those states insisted on scheduling their primaries early in the process in violation of national party rules, their primary results were voided.
Mrs. Clinton won those contests, even though neither she nor Mr. Obama campaigned in those states in deference to party leaders. Now, though, those voided delegates are looking very tempting to her supporters.
"Frankly, the party needs to deal with Florida and Michigan," said Marcel Groen, a superdelegate backer of Mrs. Clinton who chairs the Montgomery County Democratic Party. "If, at the end of the day, we have a nominee without input from those large states, that can't be good."
The alternative is worse, countered Mr. Altmire.
"You can't change the rules in midstream," he said. "Those states broke the rules and were penalized for it. Obama wasn't even on the party ballot in Michigan, so how do you turn that around? Do you vote again? Do you have caucuses? It's a real mess."
If one candidate wins the popular vote and most of the delegates, and the superdelegates change the outcome, he said, "that will be the worst possible thing for the Democratic party," leading to a disaffected electorate in November.
Mr. Groen remained unapologetic about the idea that superdelegates could determine the final result of this unprecedented, unpredictable battle for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The superdelegates, a previously little known cog in the nation's elaborate electoral machinery, were created by a special commission in 1981 following disastrous Democratic election defeats in 1968 and 1972 in an attempt by party leaders to gain more control over the nominating process.
"I hope we exert some leadership on this issue," said Mr. Groen. "That's how I view my role, which is to unify the party and bring it together, and in a race that is this close, we have a right to determine and influence who the presidential candidate should be.
"Maybe that's why they call us superdelegates."
Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1949.