By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 6, 2008 12:52 PM
Having battled on Super Tuesday to a virtual dead heat, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) are charting distinctly different paths to the Democratic nomination in a race so close it may not end until the party convention in late August.
Some analysts saw little likelihood that either candidate could score a knock-out blow in the next string of contests, which includes the so-called "Potomac primaries" in the District, Virginia and Maryland next Tuesday, preceded by voting this Saturday in Louisiana, Nebraska and Washington state.
As the Democrats develop their strategies for the coming weeks, the mantra of Bill Clinton's drive for the presidency in 1992--"it's the economy, stupid"-- animates his wife's bid to create a Clinton dynasty. Exit polls suggest Hillary Clinton did well yesterday among voters who consider the economy the most important issue, and she continued to draw support from lower-income voters who are particularly vulnerable to an economic downturn.
Clinton appeared to be speaking directly to those voters last night when she addressed supporters in New York. She said the race was about "the mother whose insurance company won't pay for her child's treatment; the couple so determined to send their daughter to college, they're willing to mortgage their home with a subprime second mortgage; the man who asked me what he was supposed to do after training the person who will take his job in another country; the veterans who've come home, only to find they don't have the health care."
Obama, meanwhile, continued his extraordinary performance among voters concerned about the war in Iraq and those thirsting for change. His continued strength among self-described independent voters fueled his argument that he would be the better general election candidate.
In his remarks last night in Chicago, Obama signaled he would try even more aggressively to draw a contrast with Clinton over who is the true agent for change.
"If I am your nominee," he said, "my opponent will not be able to say that I voted for the war in Iraq, because I didn't. Or that I gave George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran, because I haven't. Or that I support the Bush-Cheney doctrine of not talking to leaders we don't like, because I profoundly disagree with that approach."
The GOP contest appeared less volatile than the Democratic race this morning, with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) staking a clear claim to front-runner status after victories in the biggest states yesterday. While he did not definitively put away former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who won 12 states between them, McCain won most of the delegates at stake yesterday.
Several GOP analysts said it would be difficult for the others to catch up.
"McCain hasn't got it into the end zone yet, but it's late in the game and he has a 21-point lead," said Ed Rogers, a former political director in the George H.W. Bush White House. "It is a big challenge for Romney in the near term news cycle to somehow minimize or diminish the defeat he has suffered. I don't know if it's possible. He doesn't have enough of a foothold or an ideological grip on the party."
Both Clinton and Obama could plausibly take succor from yesterday's results. Clinton won most of the large states in serious competition--including the big prize, California--and appeared to blunt Obama's late momentum. Obama won a string of smaller states, his home state of Illinois and the bellwether state of Missouri--which initially seemed prepared to go for Clinton but broke narrowly this morning for the junior senator from Illinois.
By this morning, it appeared the two candidates had evenly divided the delegates at stake in the 22 states that held nominating contests yesterday, with Clinton narrowly ahead in the overall delegate count, 845 to 765 , according to the Associated Press. The Obama campaign said the race may be even closer. A total of 2,025 delegates is needed to capture the Democratic nomination.
Because the Democratic party apportions many of its delegates according to the results in each state's congressional districts, rather than by a winner-take-all formatanalysts expect a tight race for weeks to come. Some said Obama appears likely to do well in the Potomac primaries and could overtake Clinton in the delegate count a week from now.
"She's holding on right now, but you would anticipate he would win Virginia, Maryland and D.C.," said Sara M. Taylor, the former Bush White House political director. "She is going to be behind next Tuesday, which is remarkable."
Still, continued trench warfare for delegates appeared likely this morning, with the focus on the roughly 800 "super delegates"--members of Congress, party officials, governors and others who may vote for any candidate they like
"With two candidates this strong, I just do not foresee how either of them will come out with enough of a lead among the elected delegates to be anywhere near being able to get the nomination," said Joe Trippi, who until recently was a top campaign adviser to former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.). Trippi said in an interview this morning that he now believes the race will come down to who can do a better job of wooing, wining and dining the super delegates.
While Clinton may enjoy an early lead, he noted, these top officials will be looking carefully at who they believe can win the general election. "I don't believe it's clear who has the advantage among super delegates now," Trippi said.
Elaine Kamarck, a super delegate committed to Clinton and a one-time adviser to Al Gore, agreed that the battle for these delegates could be critical, but said she believed it would break on behalf of the candidate who demonstrates electoral strength in the states ahead.
"They are going to try and reflect as best as possible the will of the people," said Kamarck.
But exactly who reflects the will of the Democratic electorate was hard to determine this morning. Exit polls yesterday showed clear lines emerging between the Democratic candidates on race, gender and class.
In the mega-state of California, for instance, Obama scored well among African Americans, college-educated voters and those making more than $50,000; Clinton won among Hispanics, non-college graduates and those who earn less than $50,000. Obama won big among white men; Clinton was victorious among white females, who made up a little bit more of the California electorate. There was also a clear generational divide between the two candidates yesterday. In many of the key states, including Illinois, Missouri and Massachusetts, Clinton swamped Obama among older white voters, while he racked up big margins among younger voters.
The exit polls yesterday echoed recent national polls suggesting that the economy has thoroughly overtaken the war in Iraq as the principal concern of the electorate, a trend that appeared to be working to Clinton's advantage.
While Obama beat Clinton among voters in key states who cited Iraq as their most important concern, Clinton appeared to be carried to victory in places such as California, New Jersey, Tennessee and Massachusetts by voters motivated by the weakening economy.
Trippi said that before Edwards dropped out of the race last week, Clinton was the only candidate competing with the former North Carolina senator for the allegiances of less affluent, economically pressured Democrats.
"Obama wasn't having any success connecting to them," Trippi said. On Super Tuesday, he added, "[Obama] did pick up some, but she always has had an advantage there. His appeal has always been to upscale, better educated Democrats."
But Obama will bring his own strengths to the campaign ahead, not least of all the excitement he is generating on the campaign trail.
"This factor about excitement continues to grow and be a big thing--I think it is one of his biggest assets," said Jeremy Rosner, a Democratic pollster who is supporting Obama. "It's a huge, huge factor supporting him in the race. It's a level above the issue contest."