By CAROLYN LOCHHEAD
San Francisco Chronicle
February 25, 2008
His wins in Wisconsin and Hawaii hand the Illinois newcomer an unbroken string of 10 victories and a huge tailwind heading into what could be decisive contests in Ohio and Texas on March 4.
With 334 delegates at stake, both are must-wins for the former first lady, even by her own campaign's calculations. "A defeat would be decisive in those states," said Tad Devine, who ran the campaigns of previous Democratic nominees Al Gore and John Kerry. "I think if he wins either one, she has a really hard time explaining why she should be the nominee."
If Obama wins Ohio or Texas, "I don't see how she would be able to hold off forces that would then begin to build behind his candidacy, including a huge number of the superdelegates," Devine said. "I think all the institutional party apparatus and others would say, 'Look, we need to unite behind this guy.' "
Wisconsin and its 74 delegates seemed to hold an advantage for Clinton. The state is 90 percent white and more than 50 percent female and has large numbers of working-class voters stung by the slowing economy. Yet exit polls showed Obama made inroads into Clinton's base among all those groups and won by double digits despite the dearth of blacks in the state.
The New York senator made few gains among Obama's supporters among youth and men. Clinton's sharply escalated negative attacks failed to dent Obama's message, while her recast theme of solutions-versus-speeches failed to gain traction.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, now the presumptive GOP nominee, also won in Wisconsin, beating former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Obama delivered a victory speech to a huge Houston rally, hitting issues ranging from taxes to foreign policy as if to answer charges that he is high on hope but thin on substance. Yet his sense that the presidency is within his grasp was unmistakable. "Houston, I think we've achieved liftoff here," he said to a roaring crowd.
The Democratic-turnout numbers preview a daunting uphill climb for McCain. Obama's votes outran McCain's almost three to one, while Clinton won two votes for every one that went to McCain, following a nationwide pattern.
Obama's challenge now is to keep his momentum rolling as he assumes the role of likely Democratic nominee. As the last week has already shown, Obama will be under heavier media scrutiny as a front-runner and will be subjected to more pointed and more frequent attacks from McCain as well as Clinton.
Two critical debates are coming up Thursday in Texas and Tuesday in Ohio. The Democratic rivals have had just a single one-on-one debate so far, in Los Angeles last month. Many observers think Clinton won that round, and she has been begging for a rematch ever since. Debates showcase Clinton's commanding policy grasp and deny Obama his advantage in inspirational speeches.
Debates also open the possibility of landing zingers or making mistakes that can move voters and alter the direction of a campaign, including Walter Mondale's "Where's the beef?" line against Gary Hart and Ronald Reagan's jokes about Mondale's inexperience and youth.
Clinton was late to wake up to the fact that Obama was piling up pledged delegates in small states after Super Tuesday on Feb. 5. Her big-state strategy worked on that day, including a 10-point margin in California, but it left her devoid of wins and short on delegates in the 10 contests that followed. Clinton, now banking her quest for the presidency on Ohio and Texas, still leads in both, but polls are tightening rapidly.
A new Survey USA poll in Ohio shows that Clinton's 17-point lead of a week ago has been cut in half. The poll shows Clinton leading, 52-43. In Texas, a new CNN poll puts Clinton just two points ahead of Obama, at 50-48.
Clinton is heavily courting Latinos in the South, with whom she has a long history going back to her work in the Rio Grande Valley as a young Democratic organizer.
But unlike California, where Clinton's lopsided margins among Latinos helped give her a 10-point victory in the nation's most populous state, Texas also has a large black population. Heavy black turnout in recent elections means that heavily black districts have more delegates by population than predominantly Hispanic districts, whose past turnout has been lower. That would allow Obama's near lock on black voters to offset Clinton's grip on Texas Latinos.
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Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com
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