Washington -- Being a superdelegate to this year's Democratic National Convention in Denver may not be so spectacular.
In the past, the high-ranking elected officials and party officers, free to vote for whomever they wanted at the convention, were most notable for snagging invitations to the best receptions or securing prime seats on the floor.
But it now looks as if the votes of 796 superdelegates may determine whether Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton becomes the party's standard bearer. The position this year entails more responsibility than recreation. And while George W. Bush likes being the decider, many party leaders do not.
The perception of a presidential nomination decided by private pledges and whispered promises "would be terrible," said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, the most prominent Maryland superdelegate yet to announce his choice.
"We want to avoid it, and we want to avoid the appearance," said Cardin, one of Maryland's 27 superdelegates. "That is something that would be very damaging to the democratic principles of the Democratic Party."
That's why Cardin and others from Maryland will be carefully watching the results of the coming primaries in Wisconsin, Hawaii, Ohio and Texas. If a clear leader emerges soon and begins pulling away, party leaders could reaffirm the will of millions of voters, not shape it or overturn it.
"I really do believe that we will have one nominee by the time the caucuses and primaries are over," Cardin said.
"When we set up the superdelegate process ... I don't think it was ever intended to be determinative of who our nominee would be," he said.
When Democrats in the Mid-Atlantic went to the polls for last week's Potomac primaries, they voted decisively for Obama. The Illinois senator has compiled eight straight victories, pulling ahead in the delegate count. In Maryland, Obama carried all six congressional districts that are represented by Democrats.
But even if he wins convincingly in all remaining states, it will be difficult for Obama to reach the 2,025 pledged delegates needed for nomination, because of the way Democrats divide delegates proportionately.
"The way the district votes is obviously something you take into consideration," said Rep. John Sarbanes. His 3rd District went for Obama 55 percent to 42 percent, but Sarbanes has not committed to a candidate.
"I am persuaded by arguments that the superdelegates ought to see where this thing is heading, and then be in a position to ratify what the voters have done when we get closer to the end of the process," Sarbanes said. "Any careful deliberation or judgment has to take into account the way the popular vote is going. And that is obviously still unfolding."
Sentiments like that are disturbing to some Clinton supporters, who recognize that Obama is building momentum and that a fresh victory for him in a large state would be troublesome for the New York senator.
"The suggestion now being made by some that the original intention was for superdelegates merely to mirror the results of their respective congressional district primaries and caucuses, is nonsense," wrote Lanny J. Davis, a longtime Clinton supporter and attorney from Maryland, in a recent opinion piece. "That would have been illogical. Why create them at all if that were the case?"
But Tad Devine, a longtime Democratic strategist involved in several presidential campaigns, said the superdelegate category was created to make sure that elected officials had as much representation as impassioned activists at conventions - something that didn't happen during the Vietnam era. Their votes, he said, are designed to give a vote of confidence and clear margin to the winner in a close contest.
"After listening to the voters, the superdelegates can do what the Democratic Party's rules originally envisioned," Devine wrote in a New York Times opinion piece. "They can ratify the results of the primaries and caucuses in all 50 states by moving toward the candidate who has proved to be the strongest."
The very name given to the group is jarring, said Mike Cryor, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party. He has said he will not declare who will get his delegate vote.
"It's part of the reason people are having a negative reaction to them, because their value is somehow greater," Cryor said. Like Cardin, Cryor said "the popular will of the voting public should be the dominant influence here."
Those who want to remain neutral will have to withstand fierce lobbying pressure from the leading candidates and their allies. The Obama campaign is asking supporters to submit online testimonials that can be delivered to unpledged delegates.
"Your personal story about why you support Barack Obama is often the most powerful persuasion tool for someone who's undecided," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe wrote in an e-mail. "That's true whether your undecided voter is your neighbor or a superdelegate."
Several Maryland elected leaders, including Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Gov. Martin O'Malley, pledged support to Clinton before last week's results, and as yet have not changed their minds despite the 61 percent to 36 percent Obama victory in the state.
"We made the commitments we made to Senator Clinton or Senator Obama for honorable reasons," O'Malley said. "And I think Maryland is very well positioned and very well served to have so many elected officials who are in leadership positions [for] both our two final candidates."
State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, a Clinton supporter and superdelegate because of her leadership position with a national Democratic treasurers association, said she finds it "difficult to believe that in the end it will be decided by the superdelegates."
Superdelegate Maria Cordone of Maryland, who represents the National Democratic Seniors Coordinating Council, said she is sticking with Clinton because of the strong support the New York senator receives from older voters. "That's where my heart is, and that is where my commitment is," she said.
While attention to superdelegates may well increase in the coming weeks, state party vice chairwoman Lauren Dugas Glover, an uncommitted delegate, is urging all to take a deep breath.
"It's a process that has to continue to unfold," she said. "There's no roadmap to this."