Before Voting Begins, Clinton Leads

With only six days left before the Iowa caucuses and the race to the Democratic nomination well under way, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton is leading in the important battle for the so-called "super delegates."

Throughout the year states jockeyed fiercely to position their primaries and caucuses earlier in the year to play a more significant role in the nominating process.

But even with a bunched-up early primary season, a candidate still needs to accumulate delegates to win the Democratic nomination.

Delegate Race

In order to win the Democratic nomination, a candidate needs to secure 2,026 delegates out of a total of 4,050.

As of today, Clinton has amassed 69 more delegates than her nearest competitor, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, according to an ABC News survey of Democratic super delegates.

Clinton has support from 158 super delegates, Obama has 89 and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards comes in with 26. (Full chart last page).

More than three-quarters of the total delegates are awarded based on a state's primary or caucus results, but there are also unpledged free agents, so called super delegates who are up for grabs.

This election year there are 797 unpledged super delegates who can pick a candidate regardless of the result of their state's primary or caucus.

Super Delegates

Democratic super delegates are state party leaders, national party leaders and former Democratic presidents who are free to vote for any candidate they choose even before their own state primary or caucus.

Super delegates can select whichever candidate they wish for the nomination and they are not bound to their candidate until the convention.

These delegates can change their mind as many times as they want before states even begin voting and one candidate emerges as the nominees.

A similar survey of super delegates by ABC News in 2004 found Howard Dean leading in the super delegate count before the Iowa caucuses.

Yet when John Kerry emerged as the winner there and began his run to the nomination, super delegates began to jump off the Dean ship and throw their support to Kerry.

Clinton enjoys considerable support from her home state of New York. She has received commitments from 41 of the 49 super delegates there, giving her a solid base before she even leaves the Empire State.

Obama has similar support from his home state of Illinois, securing commitments from 24 of the state's 32 super delegates.

Methodology: ABC News' Political Unit contacted approximately 93 percent of the super delegates by e-mail or telephone.

Some delegates contacted by ABC News had not yet made up their mind on their endorsement and some have no plans to endorse before voting begins.

Super delegates who reported to ABC News that they are firmly committed to a candidate and whose support the campaign is aware of, were added to that candidate's tally.

ABC News also checked and included all explicit public announcements of support made by any super delegate.

We also reached out to the delegate trackers in each campaign to determine whether our count is similar to their count.

Because super delegates are unpledged, they are under no obligation to state their preferences publicly before the convention. Counting super delegates is an inexact science, but this is the best estimate of the current state of play according to the super delegate responses we've received.

DELEGATES

Clinton 158

Obama 89

Edwards 26

Richardson 20

Dodd 15

Biden 8

Kucinich 1

Gravel 0

ABC News' Jacqueline Klingebiel, Nancy Flores and Mike Chesney contributed to this report.

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