Clinton and Obama court Iowa activists who backed Edwards

Sunday, March 16, 2008

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Supporters of Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton are once again ardently courting Iowa Democratic activists as they vie for the support of delegates pledged to departed rival John Edwards.

Edwards finished second in the state's leadoff precinct caucuses Jan. 3, but those caucuses are only the first step in a complicated process of picking the state's 45 pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August.

The next step in that process are the conventions held Saturday in each of the state's 99 counties, where 13,000 activists gathered to elect delegates to congressional district and state conventions.

The epic presidential race between Clinton and Obama has been reshaped since Iowa's caucuses, but is no less intense with every delegate carrying weight.

"Every single one counts, and that's why we've been here organizing," said Teresa Vilmain, a field organizer for Clinton.

"We've filled all of our slots," said Gordon Fischer, a former Iowa Democratic chairman who is organizing for Obama.

Obama won the state's precinct caucuses with 39 percent of the vote, with Edwards narrowly edging Clinton to finish second. State Democratic Party officials projected those results would yield Obama 16 delegates, Clinton 15 and Edwards 14. Though Edwards finished second, Clinton got the extra delegate because of her strong showing in congressional districts with additional weighting.

Those 14 potential Edwards delegates are now in play since he's dropped from the race. An Associated Press delegate tally showed Obama with 1,603 delegates and Clinton with 1,497, so both camps are competing for every delegate available.

Rob Tully, a Des Moines lawyer and prominent Edwards backer, sent an e-mail to supporters urging them to remain neutral, but there appeared to be movement.

"Barack Obama stands for a lot of the same things that John Edwards stood for," said Ro Foege, a state legislator from Mount Vernon who switched to the Obama camp.

The county conventions are traditionally sleepy gatherings where party leaders have trouble gathering a quorum to conduct business, largely because the party usually has a nominee by this point. With the race still up for grabs, activists jammed school gymnasiums, auditoriums and meeting halls across the state.

Former governor Tom Vilsack, a Clinton backer, spoke to more than 1,200 delegates jammed into a suburban high school gym.

"The reality is we are united on one thing today, we are Democrats, we are proud Democrats and we are going to elect a Democratic president," said Vilsack, who dropped his own bid for the nomination even before the voting began. "Let us pledge that we will unite behind our nominee -- be it he or she."

Party officials expected results from virtually all the counties by late afternoon. A handful of tiny rural counties were holding their conventions in the evening.

In addition to the 45 pledged delegates, the state has 12 automatic delegates who are elected officials or party leaders. Four of those have endorsed Obama, three Clinton and the rest are uncommitted.

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