Decision day looms this week for undeclared superdelegates from Maryland and other states, whose fence-straddling could end soon and help close out the protracted Democratic selection process.
Final presidential primaries will be held tomorrow in South Dakota and Montana, and pressure is building for remaining superdelegates to announce their choice of a candidate.
Many are expected do so within hours or days, effectively delivering the Democratic nomination to Sen. Barack Obama. In Maryland, that means that several high-ranking political officials, including Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, could finally make their intentions known.
"I think some people are" on the verge of declaring their intentions, said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the House majority leader from Southern Maryland. "I think there is a good probability that Mrs. Clinton may be making up her mind as well."
After votes are counted tomorrow and all pledged delegates - those awarded through primaries and caucuses - have been allocated, Obama will fall short of the number needed for the nomination. But he'll be close, within about two dozen.
Party leaders and political observers expect the gap to close quickly this week once superdelegates who support the Illinois senator, but who have withheld announcements at the campaign's behest, come forward.
"The short answer is 'yes.' They have a bank, and they are ready to pull the trigger," said Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Michael E. Cryor, an Obama superdelegate who coordinated the timing of his announcement with the campaign last month.
Superdelegates are the elected Democrats and party officials who are free to vote for whomever they want at the party convention in Denver. Of Maryland's 27 superdelegates, nine have not declared for a candidate. Four of the nine are members of Congress: Cardin, Hoyer and Reps. John P. Sarbanes and Chris Van Hollen. Others are Democratic National Committee members.
Top Democrats want to begin healing the fissures between the supporters of Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton that were on display over the weekend at a meeting of the Democratic National Committee's rules and bylaws committee. The committee agreed to seat all the members of the Florida and Michigan delegations but gave them only a half-vote each as punishment for holding primaries earlier than party rules allowed. Some Clinton supporters left the meeting chanting, "Den-ver, Den-ver," signaling their intention to carry the fight over delegates to the national convention in late August.
Party leaders are attempting to head off any divisions. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told a Nevada radio program last week that "we agree there won't be a fight at the convention." He said, "We're going to urge folks to make a decision quickly," and he specifically said it would come this week.
In terms just as sharp, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the San Francisco Chronicle that she would step in if there was no resolution by the end of June.
Several undecided Maryland superdelegates are keeping their intentions cloaked but revealing some clues.
Van Hollen said he has remained quiet during the primaries because of his position as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
"Now that those contests are coming to an end, I expect to make and announce a decision in the near future," he said in a statement responding to The Sun. "I have consistently said that it would be a mistake for the superdelegates to veto the decision of the elected delegates unless new information emerges that demonstrates that the winner of the elected delegate count could not win in November."
Cardin, too, said he expected to announce his intentions within a few days. In a statement, he said that the long primary season has drawn huge numbers of new voters and that "I share the goal" of Obama and Clinton of "electing a Democratic president in November."
"I see my role as a superdelegate to help ensure that happens," he said.
Hoyer would not commit to a timetable, saying, "There are things happening every day that impact on that decision. Also, I'm interested in what the candidates themselves have to say after the primaries are over."
DNC Vice Chairwoman Susan Turnbull of Montgomery County repeated her stand that because of her post, her decision will only ratify the choice of others.
But Turnbull said she supports the position of Reid and Pelosi, and said she could be ready to disclose her choice this week.
"That's a very strong possibility," she said. "I can read tea leaves as well as everybody else."
Not all superdelegates feel bound by the Reid and Pelosi timetable. Belkis Leong-Hong, chair of the DNC's Asian and Pacific Islander American caucus, said she doesn't know when she's going to make up her mind. She's not an elected official, she said, so warnings from congressional leaders don't affect her.
"I'm really one of those truly uncommitted," the Montgomery County resident said. "I keep going back and forth. ... What I would love to do is split my vote in half."
Leong-Hong said the caucus is evenly divided, and she awaits a firmer commitment from each campaign on issues important to Asian-Americans, such as access to capital, and immigration - particularly having to do with family reunification.
Immigration "is not just an Hispanic issue," she said. "I've spoken to both campaigns about this."
"I really don't have a timetable," Leong-Hong said. Asked whether she might remain undecided until the convention, she said, "I don't think so."
Del. Heather R. Mizeur of Takoma Park has consistently declined to discuss her thinking. "I'm not interested in talking about that right now," she said.
Clinton's campaign has reserved the right to challenge the DNC's ruling on Michigan delegates, but party leaders are discouraging such an effort and are working to make sure that tomorrow's primaries mark the end of the nominating contest and the start of the general election campaign.
Puerto Rico primary
Hillary Clinton wins lopsided, symbolic victory. PG 4a