p>The phone interrupted Mike Doyle as he was busy preparing a Super Bowl feast of veal osso bucco.
"It was a blocked number. Usually I don't pick those up, but I did this time and the voice said, 'Congressman Doyle? Please hold on one second for President Clinton.' "
Sure enough, in a moment the 42nd president was on the phone, saying he was on his way to the Super Bowl with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and was wondering, by the way, if there was anything that would sway the uncommitted congressman to his wife's camp.
The 14th District lawmaker qualified for the unusual attention as a member of two select groups.
He's a superdelegate.
And he's a Pennsylvania Democrat.
And this year, for the first time since at least 1984 when former Vice President Walter Mondale's win here helped sink Sen. Gary Hart's insurgent bid, both groups may have a crucial voice in the Democratic presidential nomination.
Hoping to boost Pennsylvania's political voice, a variety of politicians, including Gov. Ed Rendell, prodded the Legislature to move the date up to Feb. 5. The effort failed, but in a nominating season seemingly governed by the law of unintended consequences, that failure gave the state the highest political profile it has enjoyed in any spring in memory.
"It was blind luck," Mr. Rendell said.
The novel importance springs from the serendipity of the calendar, a tight race between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, and Democratic delegate selection rules that make it difficult for any candidate in a two-person race to amass a commanding lead.
After four contests this weekend, the Democratic candidates are turning to Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia for votes on Tuesday. The following week, there's a Democratic primary in Wisconsin and a caucus in Hawaii.
Mr. Obama is expected to do well in all of those. But March opens with two big-state contests, Texas and Ohio, which offer more fertile ground for Mrs. Clinton.
After that, however, no major stores of delegates are at stake until the April 22 contest here, an extended opportunity for the kind of intense focus that Pennsylvania, as a traditional general election battleground, is more accustomed to in the fall.
The long lead-time creates the potential for the kind of retail politics more commonly associated with Iowa or New Hampshire.
"Pennsylvania may be critically important in this process in a way it hasn't been for several cycles," Howard Wolfson, Mrs. Clinton's spokesman said last week. "After March 4, we have a gap in which everyone gets to exhale."
Early edge to Clinton
Many analysts see Pennsylvania as a promising state for Mrs. Clinton. According to one report, the Obama strategists are among them. Exit polls in previous states suggest that one demographic plus for the New York senator is that Pennsylvania has one of the nation's oldest populations. Older voters have been among Mrs. Clinton's most reliable supporters.
"We're an old state, second oldest in the union, so, advantage Clinton,'' said Mr. Rendell, who has endorsed Mrs. Clinton.
But referring to Mr. Obama's strength among younger voters he added, "We have a lot of college students who can register here -- so advantage Sen. Obama.''
Not surprisingly, given the patterns of past contest, Mr. Rendell sees race as a factor as well.
"You've got conservative whites here, and I think there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate," he said. "I believe, looking at the returns in my election, that had Lynn Swann [the 2006 GOP gubernatorial candidate] been the identical candidate that he was -- well-spoken, charismatic, good-looking -- but white instead of black, instead of winning by 22 points, I would have won by 17 or so.
"And that [attitude] exists. But on the other hand, that is counterbalanced by Obama's ability to bring new voters into the electoral pool."
If Mr. Obama faces hurdles in more conservative Western Pennsylvania, as Mr. Rendell suggested, the exit polls' demographics also suggest he can expect to do better among the voters in the southeast who have been such a bulwark for the governor.
In addition to Philadelphia, with its large black population, the four large suburban counties surrounding it are home to many voters like those who have supported Mr. Obama elsewhere.
Said Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel, who is running as a Clinton delegate, "I do think it will be a real battle. Pennsylvania Democrats are fond of the Clintons and she benefits from the Rendell connection ... [but] Obama might have an advantage in the suburbs [where] Democrats are better educated on balance, and slightly younger than Philadelphia Democrats.''
The early polling on the Democratic race has consistently depicted big leads for Mrs. Clinton, although there have been few recent polls and none since former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards dropped from the race.
A Keystone Poll conducted by Franklin and Marshall College in the second week of January, showed the New York senator with the support of 40 percent of the voters, while Mr. Obama was at 20 percent and Mr. Edwards, 11 percent.
The Obama campaign would seem to agree that Mrs. Clinton holds the upper hand in the state, according to a Bloomberg News report last week on an internal document prepared by the campaign and mistakenly included in a public email.
The state-by-state spreadsheet projected a 52 percent to 47 percent win for Mrs. Clinton in Pennsylvania, one that would result in an 83-75 division of the state's pledged delegates.
Projecting the overall delegate distribution, the spreadsheet sees a virtual tie among pledged delegates going into the convention, a result that suggests the controversial scenario whereby unallocated superdelegates would determine the party's nominee.
The Obama campaign has not disavowed the memo, although the candidate himself said he wasn't familiar with it. But asked if he thought that spreadsheet's projection was likely Mr. Obama said, "I think it's going to be close, down to the wire," according to a transcript of his remarks supplied by his campaign.
In addition to Mr. Rendell, Mrs. Clinton has been endorsed by T.J. Rooney, the chairman of the state party and by Jean Milko, its vice-chair, and by Michael Nutter, the popular new mayor of Philadelphia. Her institutional advantage is further reflected in the roster of the state's superdelegates, the party and elected officials automatically seated at the Denver convention. While roughly half remain publicly neutral, Mrs. Clinton has a significant advantage among those who have made their allegiances known.
Mr. Obama has the public support of just two of the 27 superdelegates named so far, Reps. Chaka Fattah of Philadelphia and Patrick Murphy of Bucks County. At least 10 have lined up for Mrs. Clinton. Locally, they include Evelyn Richardson of Pittsburgh, a superdelgate by virtue of her membership in the Democratic National Committee. Among the so-far uncommitted delegates are Sen. Bob Casey, former Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff and Mr. Doyle, who has been uncommitted since his first choice, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the president's Super Bowl buddy, withdrew.
The superdelegates, legally uncommitted and able to switch between candidates at any time, include the governor, the two state party leaders, 11 Democratic members of Congress, Mr. Casey, and 12 Democratic National Committee members. Three more bonus delegates are still to be named by the party's state committee.
They are in addition to the 158 delegates to be chosen based on the April 22 balloting. Of those 103 will be awarded based on the voting in congressional districts, while another 55 will be determined by the statewide vote. Thirty-five of those are at-large delegates and another 20 spots are reserved for party and elected officials who, in contrast to the superdelegates, will be pledged to vote for their candidate at least through the first ballot in Denver.
The 103 district-level delegates will be apportioned according to the votes in each of the congressional districts with the balance meted out according to the overall statewide margin. The number of delegates in each of the state's 19 congressional districts varies from four to seven, according to a formula that weighs Democratic registration and voting performance in recent presidential and statewide elections.
Mr. Doyle's 14th District, including the city of Pittsburgh and part of the Mon Valley, will send seven delegates to Denver, for example, while the 4th District, held by Rep. Jason Altmire, will elect five Democratic delegates.
The Democrats' proportional rules make it difficult to accumulate big margins of delegates. In a five-delegate district such as the 4th District, for example, the winning candidate of a two-person race would typically earn three delegates to the loser's two. To get a four-to-one split, the winner would have to gain more than 70 percent of the votes cast.
In a four-delegate district, a candidate could win by a virtual landslide, say 60 percent to 40 percent, and still have to settle for an even split. To gain a three-to-one advantage, the winner would have to pile up at least 63 percent of the popular vote.
Those rules help to explain why Pennsylvania can expect to be a player in the Democratic nomination fight, but, at the same time, they make it unlikely that the results in the state would be decisive.
"If it reaches us, there is a chance it will go all the way to the convention,'' Mr. Rendell said.
Post-Gazette politics editor James O'Toole can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1562.