By Anne E. Kornblut and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton made a raspy appeal for support yesterday in her race against Sen. Barack Obama, even as her aides warned that the Democratic presidential contest will probably drag on for months after today's Super Tuesday voting. Republican Mitt Romney, meanwhile, predicted he would "surprise" those who were expecting Sen. John McCain to be anointed as the GOP nominee in the busiest single day of primaries and caucuses in presidential nominating history.
"I am definitely the underdog," Romney declared during a final day of furious campaigning that included a hastily arranged trip to delegate-rich California.
With 24 states in play, the leading candidates in both parties scoured targeted states for votes in the hours before the polls were to open. McCain, after a year of unexpected twists that left his candidacy all but dead late last year, hoped to clinch the Republican nomination by carrying California and a swath of Northeastern states.
Democrats were bracing for a less decisive outcome. Advisers to Clinton (N.Y.), once the clear front-runner, were stoic as they envisioned a "lengthy process" that could continue for months, possibly through the Democratic National Convention in late August. Clinton officials also confirmed that she had raised about $13 million in January, compared with $32 million Obama raised in the same period.
Clinton, her voice hoarse from nonstop campaigning, showed her emotions in New Haven, Conn., as she visited the Yale Child Study Center, where she had worked during law school.
"I said I would not tear up," she said, referencing a similar and closely studied moment just before her comeback victory last month in the New Hampshire primary. She staged a national town hall meeting last night, planned a celebration in Manhattan tonight to watch the returns come in, and was slated to be back on the campaign trail Wednesday morning. She is also due to visit Northern Virginia.
Obama drew about 17,000 supporters at a rally in Hartford, Conn., yesterday, building on excitement and sense of momentum that has surrounded his campaign since an overwhelming victory in the South Carolina primary late last month. He campaigned with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) as polls showed an increasingly close race even in states, such as California, that were supposed to be solid Clinton territory. Obama and Kennedy closed out the day with a huge rally in Boston, but after several surprising turns in the race over the past month, almost no one in either camp voiced confidence about the outcome of the coast-to-coast Democratic primaries and caucuses today.
Mark Penn, the chief strategist for Clinton, and senior adviser Howard Wolfson held a conference call late yesterday to emphasize the importance of contests being held much later -- in particular, Texas and Ohio on March 4 and Pennsylvania on April 22.
"We believe there's a lot of debate to be had," Penn said, suggesting that voters had not had enough time to fully study their choices.
The Democratic nomination will be "possibly decided in March, possibly decided in April, possibly not decided until the convention," Wolfson said, expressing the extent of the turnabout the campaign has made from its initial belief that Clinton would secure the nod on Super Tuesday. Clinton and Obama both spent the final day of campaigning in the Northeast, a region that was expected to produce a strong showing for her but appeared in recent days to present openings for Obama.
With Kennedy in tow, Obama also unveiled an endorsement from actor Robert De Niro, who praised the candidate during a rally at New Jersey's Meadowlands Sports Center and mocked criticism that Obama is not experienced enough to be president.
Referring to Obama's early opposition to the war in Iraq, De Niro said: "That's the kind of inexperience I can get used to. That's the kind of inexperience our country deserves." (Clinton would later counter with an endorsement from actor Jack Nicholson.)
Cory A. Booker, the mayor of Newark, told reporters that Obama heads into Super Tuesday with "the big mo" -- momentum -- and said the wave of votes that would break for him was "like a freight train coming."
In the equally contentious Republican battle, the contenders sparred from a distance yesterday. McCain, energized but only cautiously optimistic, tried to deflect concerns that he is not conservative enough; Romney dismissed predictions that his campaign is nearing its end.
McCain added to a string of recent endorsements, announcing support from former New York governor George E. Pataki, who argued that McCain stands out in the GOP field for his national security experience and ability to reach out to independents and to Democrats.
"These are times that demand experienced, principled leadership. That leader is Senator John McCain," Pataki said at an event at Grand Central Terminal. "No one can bring the American people together in these challenging times better than John McCain."
McCain enters Super Tuesday's balloting with enormous momentum from victories in Florida and South Carolina, along with several high-profile endorsements from leading figures in the GOP establishment. But Romney showed no signs of giving up as he jetted from state to state with dozens of reporters in tow.
More than 1,000 delegates are at stake in today's Republican contests. Several states, including New York, are winner-take-all prizes that, with former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee dividing conservatives' votes with Romney, could provide McCain with a sizable, and potentially insurmountable, lead in the delegate count by the time the votes are counted tonight.
Campaigning in Atlanta, Romney said he senses a "shift in the tide" as Republicans contemplated McCain as their potential nominee. "We will go on and continue on to rack up delegates, and I am planning on winning this nomination," he said.
A strong showing by McCain would ratify his status as the party's choice, even if he does not technically secure the number of delegates to claim the nomination. Conversely, victories by Romney in a number of the bigger states could call into question the party faithful's willingness to accept McCain, long viewed with skepticism by many on the right, as their standard-bearer.
Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said the campaign is braced for early positive coverage of McCain's victories in Northeastern states, but he added that results in the West would change the day's story line. "When we wake up Wednesday morning, there will be a realization it will be a long, hard slog to the convention," he said.
Seven of the 21 states holding GOP contests today are "looking good for us," he said, pointing to Massachusetts, Colorado, Utah, Alaska, West Virginia, Montana and North Dakota, while Georgia and California came "in play the last few days." Those states have 419 of the day's 1,081 delegates at stake.
Romney added a last-minute trip to the last of those states, going to Long Beach yesterday evening for a rally before an enthusiastic crowd of about 2,000. "Something is happening in California," he said. "I think the course of our party will be set by what happens in California tomorrow."
At every stop in a whirlwind tour of battleground states, Romney has continued to knock McCain as a "liberal" who votes for higher taxes and wants to allow illegal immigrants to become citizens. He regularly insists that it has become a race between him and McCain, even as Huckabee refuses to drop out.
Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who is backing Romney, predicted that only "a bunch of liberal Northeastern states" will vote for McCain today, and that "the only alternative to stopping the McCain 'Twisted Talk Express' is Mitt Romney."
In Oklahoma City, Romney mocked McCain for once saying that economics is "not his strong suit," and pointed to his own past as a business executive. "The economy is my strong suit," he told a few dozen supporters in a huge airport hangar.
Yet even as McCain campaigned in Romney country yesterday -- traveling through Boston with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) -- he refused to take the bait, and sounded themes more suited for a general election candidate than someone fighting for his party's nomination.
Speaking at Faneuil Hall, McCain said the centrist Lieberman epitomizes "what the American people want us to do. I pledge to you, as president I will preserve my proud conservative credentials, but I will reach across the aisle and work with Democrats for the good of the country."
But McCain cautioned that he was "not predicting" that he would wrap up the GOP nomination today. "I've seen more than one election go against what the polls show," he told reporters after the rally. If for some reason today's primaries did not crown him as the presumptive nominee, "we will be prepared to continue in the campaign."
That next key moment in the campaign could come as early as Thursday, when the annual Conservative Political Action Conference begins in the District. Both McCain and Romney are scheduled to speak that day to thousands of conservative activists.
Staff writers Alec MacGillis, Perry Bacon Jr., Glenn Kessler and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.