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Eagle Point High school kids get to grill an Oregon superdelegate

EAGLE POINT — A student at Eagle Point High School asked Gail Rasmussen Friday if she might cast her ballot for one Democratic presidential candidate, but ultimately select another as a superdelegate.

Rasmussen said she told the student she is torn between two highly qualified candidates, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

"When I get my ballot I will have to come to terms with this and weigh this all out," said the 58-year-old vice president of the Oregon Education Association. "But, understand, I also have a different obligation when I get to the convention."

Rasmussen, who lives in Portland but often returns to what she considers home in Eagle Point, has gained notoriety this year because she is one of the superdelegates who might be pivotal in selecting the next Democratic presidential nominee.

She said she is pinching herself over all the attention she gets, having met both Clinton and Obama while constantly being asked how she'll vote.

"How did somebody from a little bitty town in Oregon do this?" she said.

Obama leads Clinton in total delegates, but neither candidate appears to have enough to clinch the nomination unless there is a major upset in the remaining primaries that conclude in June.

The superdelegates, who comprise one-fifth of the total delegates in the country, can throw their votes behind any candidate, and because of this power they might determine the nomination. Oregon has 12 superdelegates, including party officials and elected officials, but only four have made a decision. Gov. Ted Kulongoski and Rep. Darlene Hooley support Clinton, and Rep. Earl Blumenauer and Rep. David Wu back Obama.

Rasmussen said she will wait until Oregon voters have spoken before she makes a decision. She said it's important that she doesn't have any influence over the vote and to let the process run its course. She said the race is so tight right now and fears are running high about the power of the superdelegates.

"We have the level of anxiety of a potential abuse," said Rasmussen.

While she has been courted by both sides, she said the process has been dignified and no one has exerted any undue influence over her.

Still, she said, "My mail is running crazy from those on both sides."

Mike Curtis, social studies teacher at the high school, said he asked Rasmussen to attend two classes Friday to speak about her experiences as a superdelegate.

"The kids were impressed with how thoughtful she was about it," he said.

Curtis said Rasmussen explained how so many things are weighing on her, including the youth vote, the overall Oregon vote and her union supporting Obama.

Curtis said he runs a mock election with students to give them a chance to vote. In 2004, 67 percent of his students voted for President George Bush. Recently, 75 percent of his students voted for Obama.

A fan of the Clintons for many years, Rasmussen said she is also drawn to the eloquence, excitement and message of the Obama race.

The outcome in Oregon will have an influence on her decision, she said. Rasmussen's union has also come out in support of Obama.

She said she will make her decision as a superdelegate after Oregon's May 20 primary but before the state conventions are held in June.

Rasmussen was a delegate in the 2004 Democratic convention, but she said the issue of superdelegates wasn't important then.

She said superdelegates were first selected in 1984 as a way to create a safety valve that would moderate extremes within the party.

This election has particular significance for Rasmussen who, as an African-American woman, is conscious of the historical significance of the possibility of having a black man or a woman in the White House.

A mother of two with four grandchildren, she got her start 18 years ago at Eagle Point High School as a receptionist. She is married to Paul David Rasmussen.

She worked her way through a series of positions including attendance coordinator, administrative assistant to the athletic director, and then coordinator of the school district's Occupational Internship Program, a career program that is a joint partnership with the Veterans Affairs Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City.

Like many Democrats, Rasmussen hopes the excitement over this election continues through November and that her party can unite behind a candidate as soon as possible.

Rasmussen conducted an informal poll in the classroom at the high school where she spoke about what it's like to be a superdelegate.

"There seems to be a lot of excitement around Mr. Obama," she said.

When she told the students — many of whom have known her for years — what her role was in the Democratic party, she said they were surprised.

"Well, gosh Mrs. 'R' we didn't know all this was going on," she said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.

Eagle Point High school kids get to grill an Oregon superdelegate