1 of 2
Saul Loeb, Getty Images
Sen. Barack Obama has the support of 156 superdelegates and says voters' wishes should hold sway.

WASHINGTON — Hillary Rodham Clinton retains her lead among suddenly critical Democratic Party insiders even as Barack Obama builds up his delegate margin with primary and caucus victories across the country, according to a survey by The Associated Press.

Of the 796 lawmakers, governors and party officials who are Democratic superdelegates, Clinton had 243 and Obama had 156. That edge was responsible for Clinton's overall advantage in the pursuit of delegates to secure the party's nomination for president. According to the AP's latest tally, Clinton has 1,135 total delegates and Obama has 1,106, with three delegates still to be awarded from Sunday's Democratic caucuses in Maine. A candidate must get 2,025 delegates to capture the nomination.

The numbers illustrate not only the remarkable proximity between the two candidates, but also the extraordinary influence superdelegates could wield in determining who becomes the nominee. Both campaigns are aggressively pursuing superdelegates, trumpeting their endorsements the moment they are secured.

"I told my wife I'm probably going to be pretty popular for a couple months," chuckled Richard Ray, a superdelegate and president of the Georgia chapter of the AFL-CIO. Ray said he will remain undecided because the labor federation has made no endorsement.

"If they endorse, then I will, too," Ray said.

The national party has named about 720 of the 796 superdelegates. The remainder will be chosen at state party conventions in the spring and summer. AP reporters have interviewed 95 percent of the named delegates, with the most recent round of interviews taking place last week, after Super Tuesday.

For the first time since the AP began contacting superdelegates last fall, more than half of them — 399 — have endorsed a candidate. The remaining 320 or so delegates said they are either undecided or uncommitted, making them the subject of intense lobbying by both campaigns.

With Clinton and Obama trading wins and loses as the primary and caucus season unfolds, the role of the superdelegates has been magnified and is causing anxiety inside and outside the campaigns. If the current snapshot of the race holds, superdelegates could decide the nomination in favor of one candidate even if the other receives more votes in the party primaries and caucuses.

Donna Brazile, a top Democratic National Committee member and manager of Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign, said party elders have a role to play but said voters should lead the way.

"I don't want to superimpose my personal views; I want to reflect the will of the voters," she said Sunday, noting that as a superdelegate she is torn between Obama and Clinton. "Honestly, I don't want to decide this."

Obama weighed in Friday, telling reporters that voters should determine whom superdelegates support, even as his campaign actively courted them.

"My strong belief is that if we end up with the most states and the most pledged delegates, and the most voters in the country, then it would be problematic for political insiders to overturn the judgment of the voters," he said. "I think that should be the guiding approach to determining who will be the nominee."

Clinton, speaking to reporters on Saturday, argued that superdelegates should make up their own minds and pointedly noted that Obama has the endorsements of superdelegates John Kerry and Edward Kennedy, both senators from Massachusetts, a state whose primary Clinton won.