WASHINGTON — Despite calls for the Democratic Party's decisionmakers to decide already, members of one important Democratic group don't seem overly eager to get involved in the marathon slog for the presidential nomination.
About half of the Blue Dog Coalition, a cadre of moderate to conservative Democrats in the U.S. House, have yet to endorse anybody. If they have their way, the contest will end before they must.
Although Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama have energized the Democratic base during their six-month slug-fest, it's unclear how their liberal bona fides will play among the conservative Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans who put the Blue Dogs in office.
It's hard to justify racing out early to support a candidate for president who probably won't win a majority of votes in your district.
"Most of us represent districts that are in large part independent, moderate districts," said Rep. Allen Boyd, a Blue Dog co-chairman from Monticello, near Tallahassee, who remains uncommitted.
"Some of them have a real good, heavy Republican bent. A lot of them are districts that President Bush won. And in an election, there's no mandate to make a decision until the election comes about."
And, he pointed out, that election won't come about until the Democratic National Convention — in late August.
All Democratic members of Congress are among the nearly 800 so-called "superdelegates" who can vote for whomever they wish for the nomination.
With neither Obama nor Clinton likely to win the 2,025 delegates in the primary elections needed to cinch the nomination, the superdelegates may have the final say.
Democratic National chairman Howard Dean and other party leaders have implored them to pick a winner soon, so the nominee can begin to focus on Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican candidate.
But while the Blue Dogs make up just a fraction of the 235 Democrats in the House, they account for one-third of the 70 House members who remain uncommitted.
Many are like Rep. Tim Mahoney, a freshman Blue Dog from Palm Beach Gardens whose district runs from the Atlantic Ocean through the conservative, rural interior to Port Charlotte on the Gulf Coast.
Mahoney won with just 49.5 percent of the vote in 2006, even though his Republican predecessor, Rep. Mark Foley, resigned in disgrace just weeks before the election. Bush won the district by 10 percentage points in 2004, and Republicans have high hopes for retaking the seat this year. Clinton and Obama each have sought Mahoney's support, but he's not hitching his wagon to either.
"Hillary is very popular in places like Palm Beach, but when you get out to Okeechobee, it's a different story," Mahoney explained.
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For a little glimpse of what some Blue Dogs might be worried about, take a look at the campaign for next Tuesday's special election in northern Mississippi.
The U.S. House seat became vacant after the seven-term Republican was appointed to the Senate, and Democrats believe they had a strong candidate in Travis Childers, a businessman and chancery clerk who's running against Republican Greg Davis, the mayor of Southaven.
Childers is fiscally and socially conservative, "pro-life and pro-gun." But a TV ad aired by his opponent put photos of Childers alongside photos of Obama.
"When Obama's pastor cursed America, blaming us for 9/11, Childers said nothing," the narrator declares. "When Obama ridiculed rural folks for clinging to guns and religion, Childers said nothing."
The attack prompted Childers to distance himself from Obama, using his own TV ad to complain of "ads linking me to politicians I don't know and I have never even met."
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Throughout the campaign, Hillary Clinton has argued that she is better equipped than Obama to win working-class swing voters in the general election, voters who could make the difference in such states as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Yet the reticence of many Blue Dogs to endorse someone suggests neither candidate holds much appeal for their constituents, despite their efforts to rub a little blue in their collars — Clinton reminiscing on how her father taught her to shoot, or Obama bellying up to a bar for a Yuengling Lager in rural Pennsylvania and bowling in Altoona.
The antics have left some Blue Dogs wincing.
"You don't want to do anything that's just not natural, whether it's taking a shot or going bowling," Mahoney said. "There's one group of people you can't kid, and that's rural America. People out in Okeechobee and Highland counties, they see phony a mile away. You either play there or you don't."
Instead, the candidates should do a better job of applying their platforms for improving education, jobs and health care to rural areas, Mahoney advised. Then they'll get more support from Blue Dogs and the people they represent. He said he has had that conversation with Obama and Clinton, as well as their surrogates.
"I have told their supporters there's a big chunk of uncommitted Blue Dog delegates, and we're waiting to see what they're going to do for rural America. What's their agenda? What are they going to do for our constituents? And we're still waiting."
Wes Allison can be reached at [email protected] or (202) 463-0577.