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Clinton backer's defection tightens superdelegate race

  • Story Highlights
  • Joe Andrew, DNC chairman under President Clinton, endorses Sen. Obama
  • Andrew: "Heal the rift in this party and unite behind Barack Obama now"
  • Clinton's lead over Obama among the party's superdelegates now at 19
  • Several congressional superdelegates announced support for Obama, Clinton
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A Hillary Clinton backer's defection to the Barack Obama camp tightens the race for superdelegates, who could determine which candidate will become the Democratic presidential nominee.

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Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Joe Andrew at the 2000 convention in Los Angeles.

Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Joe Andrew, who was appointed to the post in 1999 by President Bill Clinton, said Friday that it was time for the party to line up behind the senator from Illinois so he can "get about the business of taking on John McCain and make sure we have a Democrat who wins in the fall."

"The only thing that matters is the delegate count. It's just mathematically impossible for Hillary Clinton to pick up enough delegates to be ahead of Barack Obama at the end of this process as well," Andrews said Friday.

Superdelegates -- made up of governors, senators, House members and various other party officials or members -- are also known as "unpledged" delegates. They are free to choose the candidate they like, while pledged delegates are assigned in primaries and caucuses.

With Andrew's switch, Clinton's lead over Obama among the party's superdelegates stands at 19. According to CNN's latest count, Obama has a total of 1,732 delegates (pledged: 1,491, superdelegates: 241). Clinton has a total of 1,592 delegates (pledged: 1,332, superdelegates: 260).

The remainder of the roughly 800 superdelegates have not publicly announced their preference or are yet to be selected. Video Watch CNN political editor Mark Preston weigh in »

Terry McAuliffe, another former DNC chairman and a co-chairman of Clinton's campaign, argued superdelegates should not shut down the race when millions of voters have yet to weigh in.

"We have hundreds and hundreds of delegates yet to be chosen. You don't stop the World Series in game seven. We have a long way to go," McAuliffe said, debating the issue with Andrew on Friday on CNN's "American Morning."

"It's fair that these voters who are out there. ... It's up to the voters. It's not up to superdelegates or anyone else at this stage," McAuliffe said.

Superdelegates -- made up of governors, senators, House members and various other party officials or members -- are also known as "unpledged" delegates. They are free to choose the candidate they like, while pledged delegates are assigned in primaries and caucuses.

Usually, superdelegates are an afterthought -- the nominee normally emerges before the Democratic National Convention by winning enough delegates in the caucuses and primaries to capture the nomination.

But this year, Obama and Clinton are running such a tight race that after millions of votes and months of campaigning, neither candidate is expected to have the 2,025 delegates needed to seal the nomination before the August convention, and the superdelegates could set a candidate over the top.

Many superdelegates pledge allegiance to a candidate well before the party convention, but they can change their minds. Superdelegates make up around 20 percent of the total delegates.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said Monday that he doesn't have a problem with the superdelegates waiting to make their decision until after the primary season ends June 3, but he says sooner is better than later.

"There's no reason for folks not to make up their mind by the end of June as opposed to the end of August. And that would give us an extra two months to heal the party and to avoid having a really divisive convention," he said.

Andrew may have heeded Dean's advice with Thursday's announcement.

Earlier in the day, he released a letter explaining his decision.

"The simple answer is that while the timing is hard for me personally, it is best for America. We simply cannot wait any longer, nor can we let this race fall any lower and still hope to win in November. June or July may be too late. The time to act is now."

The Indiana superdelegate served as DNC chairman from 1999 through 2001. He had endorsed Hillary Clinton last year, on the day she officially announced her White House bid.

Indiana voters -- along with those in North Carolina --head to the polls Tuesday. The outcome of those contests could sway other superdelegates to come forward and publicly support a candidate.

In response to Andrew, Clinton spokesman Phil Singer said, "We have seen record turnout in state after state because Democrats are excited and enthusiastic about this primary process."

"On Tuesday, Hoosiers will have their turn to come out in record numbers and support their candidate. We support that democratic process and think that every American should be able to weigh in and support the candidate of his or her own choosing."

But on Wednesday, Indiana Rep. Baron Hill endorsed Obama, citing his "strength of character and ability to change the tone of Washington." Video Watch more on the Democrats' primary race »

"I am truly hopeful that his campaign and election will help unify our nation and ultimately change our politics," the Democrat said in a news release.

Another superdelegate, Iowa Rep. Bruce Braley, also endorsed Obama for president Wednesday, an Obama aide said. Braley is a first-term Democratic congressman who represents an eastern district that hugs the Illinois border.

Also Wednesday, California Rep. Lois Capps, a superdelegate, co-chairwoman of the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues and mother-in-law to Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton, endorsed Obama.

She joins Democratic National Committee member Richard Machacek of Iowa, also a superdelegate, in supporting Obama this week. Superdelegate Ben Chandler, a Kentucky representative, also announced that he is backing Obama.

Meanwhile, North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley and Missouri Rep. Ike Skelton, both superdelegates, endorsed Clinton on Tuesday. Video Watch more on Easley's endorsement »

Clinton's campaign announced Wednesday that Luisette Cabanas, a superdelegate from Puerto Rico, announced her support for Clinton, "giving the campaign the majority of automatic delegates on the island."

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The campaign also announced that Pennsylvania AFL-CIO president and superdelegate Bill George announced his support for Clinton on Tuesday.

Clinton and Obama both addressed the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO convention this month. Clinton defeated Obama in Pennsylvania's April 22 primary. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN associate political editor Rebecca Sinderbrand and CNN producer Ed Hornick contributed to this report.

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