By Anne E. Kornblut and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
SALINAS, Calif., Jan. 22 -- The next Democratic presidential nominating contest will take place in South Carolina on Saturday, but Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has already turned her full attention to places such as this: delegate-rich pockets of states that will vote in a tidal wave of primaries two weeks from now.
Clinton has been focused on California, New York, New Jersey and Arkansas since her defeat in the Iowa caucuses earlier this month, betting that she can sweep states where her name recognition and popularity are strong.
The logic seems simple: She represents New York in the Senate, and New Jersey is next door; she was the first lady of Arkansas for a decade; and California will be the biggest prize when 22 states vote on Feb. 5. But in a system that awards delegates by congressional district, with some worth more than others, the calculation is far from straightforward, and Clinton backers fear that the setup could boost Sen. Barack Obama if he fares well in populous corners of key states.
Her strategists call it a "game of chess," part of the byzantine path to the Democratic nomination in a campaign that has pitted two strong front-runners and a determined third candidate, former senator John Edwards, in a tight battle from one contest to the next.
The approach is demanding. Clinton made a one-day cross-country round trip to visit this vital district, a heavily Hispanic area with a number of less-affluent voters who her advisers believe are likely to support her. She hopes to sweep the entire state of California, and polls have shown her doing well statewide, but it is just as critical that she pick up the five delegates that come with the Salinas area. Under the Democratic nominating rules, 70 percent of California's delegates will be awarded on a district-by-district basis; the remaining 30 percent will go to the candidate who wins statewide.
The same is true for the other big-prize states, forcing the Clinton and Obama campaigns, despite their record fundraising and an avalanche of media attention, to make carefully targeted choices about where to send the contenders and where to place ads.
On this trip, Clinton won the endorsement of the United Farm Workers, the union founded by C¿sar Ch¿vez, and tailored her pitch to the area's economic concerns.
"When I talk about what I want to do as your president, it is about you and your families, your jobs, your futures," she told a crowd of cheering supporters, including numerous farmworkers, at Hartnell College.
Clinton strategists think Obama will do better in African American districts while Clinton will fare better in places such as this, with a heavy Hispanic population. It is one piece of a puzzle that the campaign is putting together -- or, in the words of one strategist, paring down -- as it makes budget decisions. "You start out with this huge list of congressional districts and you slowly whittle it down" to ones that are winnable, the adviser said.
Obama is making similar decisions. Although he has opened offices in all 22 states holding contests on Feb. 5, he is zeroing in on specific voter groups in which he believes he has an inherent advantage over Clinton. In New Jersey, one of his targets is independent voters. In Georgia and Alabama, he is seeking to replicate his South Carolina strategy by targeting African Americans.
Clinton denied that she is skating past South Carolina, the first state where African Americans are expected to make up a majority of the Democratic electorate, in order to win states that are set up better for her. Her campaign is already walking a fine line with the black community in its criticisms of Obama, and aides want to avoid the appearance that she is ignoring the concerns of black voters in the South.
In a news conference before she left Washington on Tuesday, Clinton argued that it is "absolutely not fair" to say that she is ceding South Carolina to Obama, who is campaigning there most of this week. After traveling to California and Arizona on Tuesday, she was scheduled to return to Washington late that night and then go to New Jersey on Wednesday.
"I have a couple of obligations that I have to meet today and tomorrow, but my husband and my daughter are in South Carolina, and we are waging a very vigorous campaign in South Carolina," Clinton said. "We are obviously on the ground, pushing hard."
But Clinton strategists have done the math. More than four in 10 of the delegates awarded on Feb. 5 (the day when half the overall Democratic delegates will be won) lie in the four states at the heart of their plan: California, New York, New Jersey and Arkansas.
Obama, equally aware of the quirky math of the nominating process, began his ground operation months before Clinton. Because of her huge national name-recognition advantage, "it was important to get up and operational early," said Steve Hildebrand, a senior Obama adviser. The one exception is Illinois, Obama's home turf.
The Obama campaign's heavy emphasis on grass-roots organizing, which served it so well in Iowa, has led it to target the six states that will hold caucuses rather than primaries on Feb. 5. These are typically lightly attended affairs, but they could deliver big returns if Obama can follow his Iowa model of identifying a pool of supporters, including nontraditional participants such as college students and independents, and methodically turning them out.
The big three in that category are Colorado, Kansas and Minnesota. But the campaign also is active in North Dakota, where Obama has three offices; Alaska, where he has two; and Idaho, where he has one. To help balance out Clinton's edge with Democratic Party faithful, Obama is seeking endorsements in all six of the caucus states and may be close to securing the nod of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, sources close to the campaign said. (The Clinton team counters that the Feb. 5 caucus states are relatively unimportant, accounting for just 12 percent of the delegates who will be awarded that day.)
To catch the attention of voters who will cast their ballots early, the Obama campaign picked Arizona and California for the airing of its first round of Feb. 5 ads. San Francisco Bay area residents are among the most likely to vote early, and Obama's California ad targets them by addressing his call for alternative energy sources, a major local concern. Obama scored a key Bay Area endorsement, from longtime Rep. George Miller, a close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The campaign is also tackling the No. 2 prize of New York by congressional district, seeking to capitalize on a rule that would grant Obama two-fifths of all delegates if he can hit the 31 percent mark in each district. "We don't plan to win New York, but we do plan to take a lot of delegates out of there," Hildebrand said. The Clinton team has the same approach in Illinois. That is why Clinton stopped in St. Louis en route from Las Vegas to New York after winning the Nevada caucuses last weekend, making an appearance that would be seen in crossover media markets in Illinois.