It's no picnic being a superdelegate for the Democratic Party in 2008.
Just ask Mary Jo Neville. The Dayton resident is a Democratic National Committee member and an at-large superdelegate, one of a group of 796 individuals who will play a key role in picking the party's presidential nominee while trying to avoid an angry party split between the rival camps of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Superdelegates are not pledged to a specific candidate at the national convention this summer. And as Clinton and Obama battle toward the Denver conclave, this group could decide who the nominee will be -- a role many are increasingly uncomfortable with.
First there's the notion among many that superdelegates are some backroom force out to thwart the will of the voters.
"We're not like this monolithic group," Neville said at a Democratic fundraiser in Ellicott City last week. "There are over 700 superdelegates. You don't know each other."
Then there's the question of whom to support. Originally a John Edwards fan, Neville, 50, a former lobbyist for the Maryland State Teachers Association, now is on the Obama bandwagon. But she's not craving a personal call from the Illinois senator -- and neither are her friends.
"They want Oprah to call -- on speakerphone," she joked about the talk show host who has been campaigning for Obama. Neville said she received a call from Harold Ickes, a former Clinton White House insider who also is a superdelegate, offering a chance to speak to his candidate. But Neville declined.
Neville's political experience goes back to 1982 when she lived in Catonsville and became active in Baltimore County politics, she said.
She was a convention delegate in 1992, backing Paul Tsongas for president early on. In recent years, the superdelegates have never been much more than an afterthought because the nomination has not been as competitive, she said.
She's backing Obama now for several reasons, she said.
First, she said her family pushed her to back him, not that she needed much pushing.
"When you see how he's lighting a fire under people," she said, that's hard to resist. "He's a great candidate."
Maryland Democratic Party chairman Michael Cryor and County Executive Ken Ulman also attended the $50 per person fundraiser at of the home of Irfan and Erum Malik. Like many Democrats, both suggested that this year's campaign underscores the vibrancy of the party.
"This is a fine year. This is a year that makes us all proud to be Democrats," Ulman said. "I hope we're demonstrating locally that it does matter, that we are making a difference. Hopefully, we're showing the way."
Cryor said he has been struck by the seeming renewed interest in politics among young voters.
"I am stunned by the enthusiasm all over the state," he said.
Still, the party that claims to embrace diversity has a way to go.
"I am the only African-American to chair a state [Democratic] party in the 50 states," he said.
Howard County Democratic chairman Michael McPherson, who said the county party needs the money raised "so I can pay the rent" on the party's Oakland Mills Road offices, brought everyone back down to earth at the event's end.
"Don't leave here today and expect you won't hear from me," he warned the crowd of about 75, adding that he'll be seeking volunteers for the presidential campaign and beyond.
Pssst, GOP is here
Howard County Republican chairman Joan Becker isn't impressed with the Democrats' confidence, or with the media's fascination with the Obama-Clinton showdown.
"The Republican party is certainly still alive and well," she said.
And if John McCain chooses a vice president candidate with some credibility on the economy, it will only boost GOP chances in November, she said.
"The economy is what's driving people to the polls," she said. "The Republicans will have a good economic plan."
The Democrats are full of proposals for expensive programs, but "have no way to raise the money to pay for them," Becker said.
The prolonged Obama-Clinton contest -- extended further by Clinton's wins Tuesday in Texas, Ohio and Rhode Island -- could hurt the Democrats by fracturing their party, Becker said.
Meanwhile, Republicans are coalescing behind McCain.
"Our main focus will be on getting out the voters," Becker said. "No matter what the [opinion] polls are, if you don't go to the polls, it doesn't count."
Ulman's school visit
So what kind of student was Ulman at age 6?
"He wanted to learn," said Nancy Koza, a Phelps Luck Elementary School teacher who had Ulman in her class. "He was a careful observer -- very thoughtful."
Koza invited the county executive to the Columbia school last week to read Dr. Seuss stories to her crop of first-graders. The event was part of the national Read Across America celebration that coincides with the author's birthday March 2.