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Fight for ’08 Hill Support Picks Up

After the leading 2008 Republican presidential contenders took the spotlight in the first part of the year trying to outdo each other when it came to snagging Congressional endorsements, the Democratic battle for support on Capitol Hill is now finally taking shape.

News of the White House candidates’ first-quarter fundraising performance has dominated headlines in the past week, but behind the scenes the race for endorsements also was heating up as lawmakers left town for the Easter recess.

In the final weeks of March, both Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) rolled out a handful of Congressional endorsements.

Edwards landed Reps. David Obey (D-Wis.) and James Oberstar (D-Minn.), who are, respectively, the chairmen of the Appropriations and Transportation and Infrastructure committees.

Clinton, meanwhile, announced the backing of New Jersey Democratic Reps. Robert Andrews and Frank Pallone, along with New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D), a former Senate colleague. She also was endorsed by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a staunch Iraq War opponent whose support the Clinton campaign touted as evidence of her broad appeal within the party.

Clinton’s vote in favor of the 2002 resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq, and her refusal to back away from it, has brought her continued heartburn from portions of her party’s liberal base.

“All of us hope this war will be over before January 2009, but if it isn’t, President Hillary Clinton will end this war,” McGovern said in a statement released by her campaign.

Up until late March, most of the Democratic presidential contenders primarily had racked up endorsements from Members in their home states, but that is slowly beginning to change.

While campaigns can use Congressional endorsements to send a variety of messages, their overall impact and importance long has been a subject for debate. Member endorsements can open up new donor networks for presidential contenders, but even more importantly also provide campaigns with an army of surrogates.

Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) campaign, meanwhile, has appeared somewhat less focused on rolling out Congressional endorsements — or at least in drawing press attention to them.

A list of Congressional endorsements provided late Friday by the Obama campaign included Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), though there has been no evident publicity surrounding Cummings’ support. Cummings is a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and a well-regarded leader in the national black community.

A source within the Obama campaign said the Senator’s primary focus has been building support in the key early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, but just like other candidates Obama, too, is keeping track of endorsements.

“He’s meeting with key people just like everybody else,” the source said.

Both Clinton and Obama have the support of their fellow home-state Senate colleagues but do not have any further public backers in the Senate.

Senators traditionally have been more reluctant to offer presidential endorsements, especially this early in the game, and especially if it means choosing between one or more of their colleagues.

In addition to Clinton and Obama, two other Senators, Chris Dodd (Conn.) and Joseph Biden (Del.), are seeking the Democratic nod.

Dodd has all of the Democrats in his state’s House delegation but does not have the support of Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), an Independent who caucuses with the Democrats. Biden has the support of fellow Delaware Sen. Tom Carper (D).

Two of the biggest Senate endorsements yet to be landed are those of Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) and Tom Harkin (Iowa). Kennedy would have backed Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) had he decided to make another run for the White House. Harkin’s endorsement is back on the market after former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack dropped out of the Democratic contest. Vilsack has since endorsed Clinton.

Some of the most sought-after House endorsements are from Democratic Members in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada — none of whom publicly has declared support.

The majority of those individuals are freshmen this year: Reps. Carol Shea-Porter (N.H.), Paul Hodes (N.H.), Bruce Braley (Iowa) and Dave Loebsack (Iowa).

Rep. Shelley Berkley and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the two Nevada Democrats in Congress, have said they are remaining neutral.

Thus far, Edwards is the only Democratic contender to have the united support of his home-state delegation. All seven North Carolina Democrats in the House are backing Edwards, just as the former Senator had the support of all of his home-state Congressional colleagues when he ran for president in 2004.

Edwards eventually became the party’s vice presidential nominee.

While Edwards currently is third in support behind Clinton and Obama, his endorsement list already has surpassed where it was in 2004.

In addition to retaining the support of Congressional Black Caucus members Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) and Albert Wynn (D-Md.), he also has picked up several new endorsements including Reps. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) and Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.). Grijalva backed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) in 2004, while Obey, who is now supporting Edwards, was with then-Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.).

Edwards’ campaign is being managed by former Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.), a former Minority Whip who still has strong ties to Members on the Hill.

“We’re very proud of the diversity of our endorsement list so far,” said Edwards campaign spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield.

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