In 2 Battlegrounds, Voters Say, Not Yet

The New York Times – by Patrick Nealy – March 5, 2008 

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s victories in Ohio and Texas on Tuesday night not only shook off the vapors of impending defeat, but also showed that — in spite of his delegate lead — Senator Barack Obama was still losing to her in the big states.

Those two states were the battlegrounds where Mr. Obama was going to bury the last opponent to his history-making nomination, finally delivering on his message of hope while dashing the hopes of a Clinton presidential dynasty.

Yet then the excited, divided American electorate weighed in once more, throwing Mrs. Clinton the sort of political lifeline that New Hampshire did in early January after her third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses.

For Mrs. Clinton, the battle ahead is not so much against Mr. Obama as it is against a Democratic Party establishment that had once been ready to coalesce behind her but has been drifting toward Mr. Obama. The party wants a standard-bearer now to wage the war against the newly minted leader of the Republicans, Senator John McCain, who enjoys a head start with every day that the Democrats lack a nominee of their own.

Clinton advisers said her decisive victory in Ohio and her narrow one in Texas — where exit polls showed her winning the votes of women, whites and Hispanics in an extremely close race — were more than enough to argue that she should go forward to the April 22 primary in the Ohio-esque Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, even if Mr. Obama has more delegates after Tuesday night.

Mr. Obama, meanwhile, appeared likely to accumulate enough delegates from Texas and Ohio (as well as from his victory in Vermont) to strengthen his mathematical edge for the nomination and portray Mrs. Clinton as a spoiler to a unified party. Yet the results on Tuesday also bring fresh questions about his electability in crucial swing states like Ohio that Democrats are eager to carry in the November election.

“Hillary is very much in the game,” Patti Solis Doyle, Mrs. Clinton’s former campaign manager, said on Tuesday night.

Bill Burton, an Obama spokesman, brimmed with equal brio. “This was her last, best chance to significantly close the gap in pledged delegates,” Mr. Burton said of Mrs. Clinton, who began the night with about 50 fewer pledged delegates and 100 fewer over all. “They have failed.”

Mrs. Clinton spent much of 2007 running as the candidate of the Democratic establishment — racking up endorsements from party leaders, enlisting major party donors from past presidential campaigns and setting up bases of operations in populous states like California and Florida.

But after losing momentum to Mr. Obama in February, she is now viewed by many party leaders as an obstacle to the fight ahead — even as she continues to argue that she is the best candidate, by dint of her experience, to carry the party’s flag into the “wartime election” fight against a Vietnam hero and national security pro like Mr. McCain.

Mrs. Clinton’s advisers say there is no party elder who has the stature or power to pressure her to bow out, aside from her husband, former President Bill Clinton. And he more than anyone wants her to keep running.

The nomination is not determined by the number of states won, but Mr. Obama’s inability to win major battleground states beyond Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and his home state, Illinois, is a concern of some Democrats — especially since Ohio and Florida have become must-wins in presidential elections.

Mrs. Clinton has been enjoying her first real burst of momentum lately, thanks to her new advertisements and speeches questioning Mr. Obama’s abilities in a crisis, raising the fact that he has not convened his Senate subcommittee to hold hearings on the Afghanistan war. A potentially embarrassing trial of a former Obama friend and contributor has begun. And major Clinton fund-raisers said that one big victory on Tuesday night would be enough to energize donors and keep $1 million or more flowing in daily.

“Each time people think we’re down, like after Iowa, or South Carolina, or the February primaries, Hillary has found ways to come back up,” said Jonathan Mantz, the national finance director of the Clinton campaign.

The results will also embolden her campaign’s efforts to persuade the Democratic Party to factor in the delegates from Florida and Michigan, her advisers say. The party counted out those states after they moved up their primaries; Mrs. Clinton stayed on the ballot in both and “won” them in January — despite having no real competition in Michigan and no real campaign in Florida. In a sign of her thinking, She shouted out to them in her Ohio victory speech Tuesday night.

“If we want a Democratic president, we need a Democratic nominee who can win the battleground states, just like Ohio,” she said. “We’ve won Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Michigan, New Hampshire, Arkansas, California, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oklahoma and Tennessee!”

But for all the millions of votes Mrs. Clinton has now won, simple math is still her enemy. She needs to use Tuesday night to persuade superdelegates — the hundreds of party leaders who have a vote on the nomination — to stop abandoning her. Or, at least, stop long enough for Mrs. Clinton to damage him with a line of attack, goad him into a colossal gaffe (or watch him make one on his own) or rely on the media to unearth a campaign-altering scandal about him.

But it is not clear if Ohio and Texas were enough to give Mrs. Clinton — a politician who has been a known quantity for 16 years— a real chance for a fresh assessment by the many superdelegates who know her well.

“The great irony is, she is now the ‘hope’ candidate,” said Dan Gerstein, a Democratic strategist who backs Mr. Obama. “She can only hope to catch some breaks and catch Obama stumbling.”

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