As a Democratic superdelegate, U.S. Rep. John Spratt will play a bigger role in his party's presidential primary fight than he ever imagined -- or wanted.
Spratt, a York Democrat, has carefully avoided choosing sides between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. His neutrality will have to end if the race comes down to superdelegates at the party convention.
In a recent interview, Spratt said he's not ready to commit, though he hinted Obama's popularity in the 5th District cannot be ignored in his decision. Obama won all 14 counties in the district during the South Carolina Democratic primary in January.
"That makes him the presumptive choice, but I'm still keeping my options open," said Spratt. "I haven't made my final decision. Let's just leave it at that."
Because neither Clinton nor Obama can win the 2,025 votes necessary to secure the nomination solely from pledged delegates, superdelegates will determine the outcome. They include roughly 800 members of Congress, governors and other party elders.
Math would point to Obama
Two people in Spratt's inner circle told The Herald recently that regardless of what the congressman thinks he has little choice but to vote for Obama. That's because the Illinois senator racked up big margins across the district during the primary, including in heavily populated York County, where Obama garnered 9,020 votes, compared to 6,967 for Clinton.
An even more striking result can be found in Sumter County, where Obama pulled in 10,765 votes compared to Clinton's 2,870.
"What he faces is, to do what he thinks is best for the party or what he thinks is representing the Democrats of the 5th District," said Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at Winthrop University. It's possible, Huffmon said, that either route could lead to the same conclusion.
Still, the choice puts Spratt in an uncomfortable spot. As a Democrat in conservative South Carolina, he has long sought to keep his distance from the national party.
During campaign season, Republican opponents paint him as cozy with high-profile liberals such as Nancy Pelosi and Ted Kennedy. Spratt responds that he isn't beholden to anyone -- and that his opinion is valued by the Democratic leadership because he represents the party's moderate to conservative wing.
This year, pundits see the Clinton-or-Obama predicament as part of a larger political reality.
"Spratt's absence from the fray is not so much a reflection of the merits of the leading Democratic candidates as it is a nagging reminder of the drag that the national party -- and its nominees -- have had on white Southern Democratic officeholders for decades now," David Paul Kuhn of The Politico news Web site wrote in January.
Whatever the risks, Spratt has felt comfortable enough to appear with both candidates, as well as John Edwards and Bill Richardson before they dropped out. He walked in with Obama and stood near the front during a campaign stop at Northwestern High School last fall.
When Bill and Hillary Clinton visited Rock Hill on separate trips, it was Spratt who escorted each to the stage. On that day, as in others, Spratt chose his words carefully, calling Hillary Clinton a "more than viable nominee."
"Either way you do it, some people are not going to be happy," said Dave Waldrop, chairman of the Newberry County Democrats. "It's a pretty touchy situation to be in, to be honest with you."