By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
After the trench warfare of Iowa and New Hampshire and the upcoming skirmishes in a handful of states, a very different battle awaits the presidential candidates on Feb. 5: the biggest and most challenging single day in a recent campaign for a party nomination.
Democrats will hold contests in 22 states and one territory, with 1,681 delegates at stake. On that day alone, 52 percent of all pledged delegates will be awarded, compared with the 4 percent that will have been allocated in the four opening competitions of the year. Republicans have scheduled contests in 21 states for Feb. 5, known as Super Tuesday, with 975 delegates at stake. Those delegates make up 41 percent of the total available, according to the Republican National Committee.
No campaign, no matter how flush with money, can afford full-scale operations in that many states. By one estimate, the cost of a standard run of television advertising in each of the states for a week would be about $35 million.
"We've always had a mega-Tuesday, but it's gotten larger and a lot more complex," said Donna Brazile, who managed Democrat Al Gore's presidential campaign in 2000.
She said candidates must figure out how to introduce themselves to voters who have paid only limited attention to the campaign, as opposed to those in Iowa and New Hampshire. Beyond that, they must decide which states to compete for aggressively. Finally, she said, candidates will have to know how to pick up delegates even in states in which a challenger has the upper hand.
That puts a premium on the careful allocation of resources, including a candidate's time, television ads, targeted phone banks and grass-roots mobilization. "Will there be TV? It's likely," said one strategist for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy more freely. "But the more effective use of our time is communicating with folks we think are going to turn out and do it in a more personal, grass-roots way."
Clinton and her two main Democratic competitors -- Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and former senator John Edwards (N.C.) -- are approaching Feb. 5 in strikingly different ways than the Republicans are. In part, that is because the rules for allocating delegates are different, with Republicans holding many contests. In a lot of the Republican competitions, the winner of a state or a congressional district is awarded all delegates. For Democrats, delegates are distributed proportionally on the basis of the votes for each candidate.
That means that if Edwards remains a force through Feb. 5 and wins 15 percent of the vote in most contests, Clinton and Obama will need enormous margins to rack up a significant advantage in delegates.
But more than rules have influenced how Democrats and Republicans are approaching Super Tuesday. The Republican race is so unsettled that it is not clear which candidates will be viable in three weeks. That is why today's Michigan primary, Saturday's contest in South Carolina and the Jan. 29 primary in Florida are so critical.
"The plan of every candidate is to be riding on a wave of momentum," said Steve Schmidt, a senior campaign adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "The momentum is what carries you through on February 5."
"The dilemma, with the exception obviously of Romney, is that none of us have the resources to go set up organizations in these states," said Ed Rollins, senior adviser to former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, referring to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. "It's a slingshot. You hope to do well" in states before Feb. 5 "and have some momentum."
Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani was the one Republican who had a clear strategy geared toward Super Tuesday. His goal was to sweep winner-take-all primaries in Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and New York and emerge with a sizable advantage in the battle for delegates.
But weak finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire have reduced his campaign to a virtual one-state strategy, depending almost entirely on winning Florida.
For Democrats, the competition is clear: a race between Clinton and Obama, with Edwards determined to upset expectations and remain strong through Feb. 5 and beyond. Advisers to Clinton and to Obama describe their contest -- and how to define winning it -- in different terms.
"This is not a battle for states -- this is about delegates," said Howard Wolfson, Clinton's communications director. "We are past the point where any one state, no matter how important, will have a disproportionate impact relative to their delegate count on the nominating process."
David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, said delegates will be important but not necessarily decisive. "The way we view February 5 is there are 22 states that day, and the goal is to win as many states as we can," he said. "If someone is able to win several more states than your opponent, that is likely to be scored as a pretty significant win."
The Clinton and Obama campaigns have been preparing for Super Tuesday for months. At the time of the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 8, Obama's team had organizers in 19 of the 22 states and will have operations in the remaining three by the end of this week.
"Because of her huge national name-recognition advantage," Steve Hildebrand, a senior Obama adviser, said of Clinton, "it was important to get up and operational early."
Clinton's campaign is behind in setting up state organizations but is moving quickly to catch up. As of Sunday, she had operations in 19 states.
Clinton's aides said four states will be critical in their planning: New Jersey and neighboring New York, where the candidate has a home-court advantage; California, where the Clinton name has been popular and where Latino voters may give her a boost; and Arkansas, where she was first lady in the 1980s. Those states account for 44 percent of delegates awarded on Super Tuesday.
Obama's Feb. 5 base begins with his home state of Illinois, but his campaign hopes to demonstrate broad national appeal by winning states in areas where Democrats normally struggle.
The team is also looking to translate its first-place finish in Iowa to six states with caucuses on Feb. 5. The largest are Colorado, Kansas and Minnesota. But the campaign also is active in North Dakota, where Obama operates three offices; in Alaska, where he has two; and in Idaho, where he has one.
Edwards campaign manager David Bonior said the former senator has strength in such states as California, Georgia, Mississippi, North Dakota and Oklahoma. Edwards will visit four of those states beginning later this week.
Setting and exceeding expectations is part of the competition right now. When Clinton campaign advisers point to the importance of emerging with a big delegate advantage after Super Tuesday, they include the 796 "superdelegates" -- officeholders and party officials who automatically have votes at the convention -- among those they are targeting.
Clinton has an aggressive operation to convert undecided superdelegates and has a clear lead, according to the Associated Press. Plouffe acknowledged that Obama trails Clinton in this competition, but said that superdelegates will be important only if the battle goes to the Democratic National Convention in August. Short of that, he said, superdelegates will fall in line behind the effective winner of the primary battle.
Tad Devine, a longtime Democratic strategist with experience in many campaigns, said victory might be determined by the big states with contests on Super Tuesday. The six largest are California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Georgia.
"If someone were to win five of six of those and the other wins only their home state, the race is likely over," Devine said.
But it is possible no one will emerge from Feb. 5 with a decisive advantage. Said Plouffe: "I think it's likely over the next three weeks that one of us, by [Feb. 5] will have been judged doing enough better than the other that you're on the road to the nomination. But there's no guarantee. We're starting to plan."
Staff writer Shailagh Murray and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.