Matthew Nugen is not supposed to exist.
Mr. Nugen, Barack Obama’s 36-year-old national political director, is also a shadow operative charged with winning over individual superdelegates, something the Obama campaign is officially not interested in doing, since they also say that superdelegates should be guided by the will of voters instead of come-ons from campaigns.
The Obama campaign has thus far kept him out of the media spotlight, and when they caught wind of an interview with The Observer that he had arranged and confirmed via telephone and e-mail, Mr. Nugen vanished.
And yet he—along with an aggressive superdelegate-outreach program at the Obama campaign—is for real.
“Matt is the unassuming guy that you don’t realize he’s got stroke until you see Obama come in, and he is right there,” said Moses Mercado, an Obama supporter and superdelegate who is friends with Mr. Nugen.
“We don’t have the ex-president stuff, and it’s hard to get Obama to make some of the calls,” said Mr. Mercado. “So a lot of them will say, ‘Look, I’ll wait for the call from the senator,’ but you’ll get either [campaign manager David] Plouffe or Matt to make the call and seal the deal.”
“They have a two-pronged approach,” Tom Ochs, a Democratic consultant with the firm McMahon Squier Lapp, said about the Obama campaign. “Publicly, they don’t want superdelegates to overrule the will of the voters in the form of pledged delegates. Privately, they have built this insurance policy of superdelegates who they continue to roll out relentlessly, day after day. Matt is central to that effort.”
The Obama campaign’s painstakingly low-profile superdelegate counter is, in a way, the perfect symbol for their surreptitious superdelegate operation.
Mr. Nugen is an African-American political operative from St. Louis who worked on Joe Lieberman’s presidential campaign and then at the Democratic Leadership Council, before returning to the DNC, where he counted noses for Howard Dean’s successful 2005 bid for chairman.
Now Mr. Nugen and the Obama campaign are up against an effort headed by longtime Clinton loyalist and Democratic über-operative Harold Ickes; the Clinton team is counting on the Democratic VIP’s with an automatic seat at the convention to hand Mrs. Clinton the White House.
Ivan Holmes, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Oklahoma, knows what it is like to be courted by the Clinton campaign’s aggressive superdelegate outreach program.
First, he received a warm phone call from Bill Clinton. Then, Hillary Clinton called a couple days before the March 4 Ohio and Texas primaries.
“She said she thought it was going to go down to the end and that the superdelegates would decide it,” said Mr. Holmes. “Then she said, ‘You know, I did win in Oklahoma.’ She just made the statement that since she did so well, she hoped that I’d consider supporting her.”
After the candidate’s off-message appeal to his sense of loyalty to his state’s decision—the Clinton campaign has laid groundwork for the superdelegate push by encouraging them to decide independent of what their state’s voters do—Mr. Holmes received another call, just a few days ago, from a Clinton campaign staffer targeting his independent streak.
“She asked an interesting question,” Mr. Holmes said of the campaign staffer, whose name he said he did not remember. “If the pledged delegate difference was 50, 60 or 80 delegates, would that make a difference in who you voted for?’ I told her it wouldn’t and that I never vote on who I think is going to win.”
The Clinton campaign currently holds an estimated 255 committed superdelegates to Mr. Obama’s 214.
Mr. Nugen’s friends think he could give the Obama operation an edge.
“Matt’s an emerging Harold Ickes,” said Brad Queisser, vice president and managing director at the government relations firm mCapitol Management.
Mr. Queisser, a former DNC official, came to Washington from Nebraska in 1998 and met Mr. Nugen who was then working in the office of the secretary at the DNC.
Citing Mr. Nugen’s “steady and methodical” manner, Mr. Queisser invited him into meetings and later watched him become a special assistant in the office of the national chair. They worked together on the Bush-Gore recount in Tallahassee and eventually Mr. Nugen went on to head up Chairman Dean’s office in 2005; select the site for the convention in Denver; and become an expert on all things convention-related.
“He knows all of these players pretty well,” Mr. Queisser said. “In a superdelegate list, he probably has a personal relationship with 80 to 85 percent of those people, and that has to be valuable to a presidential campaign.”
But the only audience that counts for Mr. Nugen’s efforts are the superdelegates themselves. The reviews of his operation are mixed.
Belkis “Bel” Leong-Hong, an at-large committee member and Maryland-based chair of the DNC’s Asian-American and Pacific Islander caucus, said of Nugen, “He’s a very nice guy,” but complained that some of the Obama campaign’s outreach had been too aggressive.
“I’ve been inundated with phone calls and letters,” she said. “Definitely, the Obama campaign has been very aggressive. It’s actually been disconcerting in some ways. You expect these phone calls and letters to be gently nudging calls, but I received a couple that were less than friendly. Let’s just say that’s not the kind of tactics I expected.”
Ms. Leong-Hong described herself as “very uncommitted,” especially because she wanted to hear more from the candidates on Asian issues, but said that she was in no way swayed by Mr. Obama’s landslide victory in Maryland.
“I’m still waiting,” she said. “There are still all these races to go through.”
On the afternoon of March 10, the Obama campaign announced the endorsement of Mississippi-based lawyer and superdelegate Everett Sanders. Shortly afterward, Mr. Sanders described how he had been wooed.
First, fellow superdelegate and Mississippi national committeewoman Johnnie Patton softened him up for months with talk of Mr. Obama’s virtues. Then, about three weeks ago, he received a call from an old DNC employee now at the campaign, and then from another staffer who wanted to confirm Mr. Sanders had made up his mind.
Early Monday morning, the campaign sought permission for a press release, which was sent out to reporters and picked up on blogs as more evidence of the Obama campaign’s strength.
“I have not received a call from the Clinton campaign that I am aware of,” said Mr. Sanders.
Jennifer Moore, the chair of the Kentucky Democratic Party and a superdelegate, said she was waiting until her state voted before deciding what candidate to endorse. But in the meantime, she had received pitches from such high-profile supporters as Michelle Obama and Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius. (Chelsea Clinton and Terry McAuliffe have been calling her, too.)
By contrast, Mr. Holmes, the Oklahoma party chairman, said that he had received no such attention.
“It’s really been weird,” said Mr. Holmes about the lack of a press from the Obama campaign. “I haven’t heard from anyone high in the Obama campaign.”
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