By David Nakamura, John Wagner and Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 11, 2008
Democratic presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, their family members and surrogates swept through the Washington region yesterday, appearing in packed churches, schools and retirement communities in a blitz of activity two days before the high-stakes "Potomac Primary" in Virginia, Maryland and the District.
Obama, the Illinois senator coming off victories in four states this weekend, energized an overflow crowd at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, while Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) stumped for him at a gathering of Democratic activists in Bethesda. Obama reiterated his message of hope and change, suggesting that voters are viewing his opponent as politically polarizing.
"It's very hard for Senator Clinton to break out of the politics of the past 15 years," Obama said after being asked about her at the school appearance. "Senator Clinton starts off with 47 percent of the country against her. That's a hard place to start."
Clinton, the New York senator who lags in polls here heading into tomorrow's primaries, did not give her rival any ground during a town hall meeting in Manassas, where she stressed her experience and readiness. "The next president will walk into that Oval Office, and no matter how big the crowds at the inaugural, making those decisions will rest on the shoulders of that one person," she said, an apparent reference to Obama's ability to draw large audiences throughout the campaign.
Meanwhile, Clinton dispatched family members to address voting blocs largely associated with Obama. Former president Bill Clinton spoke to more than 3,000 people at two black churches in the District and Prince George's County, and daughter Chelsea Clinton rallied students at the University of Maryland in College Park.
But the Clinton team also showed signs of strain. In a surprise move, campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle stepped down yesterday and turned her duties over to longtime Clinton adviser Maggie Williams, who had joined the staff in the wake of the senator's second-place showing in the Iowa caucuses.
The activity in the Washington area was rare for a presidential nominating process that in past cycles is usually sewn up long before the Washington region's primaries. With Obama and Clinton in a virtual dead heat, every delegate is critical, and both candidates are sure to pick up some of the 171 pledged delegates at stake in the three primaries. The candidates are set to keep up an intense campaigning pace in the region right through tomorrow's voting.
Appearing at Bowie State University last night, Clinton told a raucous crowd of nearly 1,000 supporters that their vote tomorrow is important.
"Maryland gets a chance to pick a president, and it matters this year more than ever," she said. "And everybody will be watching."
If the same voters were to show up as four years ago, Clinton would stand a good chance of winning Maryland. According to exit polls, 58 percent of Maryland's voters in the 2004 primary were women, and 22 percent of voters were 65 or older, demographic groups that have supported Clinton strongly elsewhere this year.
About 35 percent of Maryland's voters in 2004 were African American, and 8 percent were in the 18 to 29 age range, key Obama voting blocs. Maryland Democrats allied with both camps, however, expect a much larger African American turnout. That is partly because of excitement over Obama's candidacy and because of a hotly contested primary between Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.) and challenger Donna F. Edwards in the 4th Congressional District, which stretches from northern Montgomery County through much of central and southern Prince George's.
Obama, who drew a crowd of 18,000 in Virginia Beach last night, did not plan to visit Maryland until today, at a pair of rallies at large venues in College Park and Baltimore. Pollsters and analysts predict that he is in strong position to sweep the region, with its heavy concentrations of African American, wealthy and college-educated voters -- three constituencies that have flocked to his campaign. Even Virginia, considered by the Clinton camp to be the most competitive of the region's races, appears to be going for Obama. A statewide poll by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research released yesterday showed Obama leading Clinton by 16 percentage points among likely voters -- 53 percent to 37 percent.
Still, because the delegates on the Democratic side are distributed in proportion to the candidates' vote totals, Clinton can stay even with Obama in the overall race even if she loses in all three jurisdictions. The battle for the Democratic nomination is expected to extend long beyond tomorrow and has become so intense that even the former president acknowledged how tough it is for voters.
"All my life, I wanted to vote for a woman as president. And all my life, I wanted to vote for an African American as president. It's hard to know why God gave us this dilemma," Bill Clinton told an enthusiastic crowd of 2,500 at Temple of Praise in Southeast Washington. "All I can tell you is that the most important thing now -- because of the war in Iraq and prestige around the world -- is that you pick the best president. Think and pray on it. . . . Whatever you decide, I honor it."
As the Democratic candidates barnstormed the Beltway, the three remaining Republicans -- Arizona Sen. John McCain, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas -- had a far quieter presence.
McCain is well ahead in the GOP race and stayed off the trail yesterday. Huckabee appeared on morning news shows and spoke at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, the late Jerry Falwell's church. And Paul issued a statement on his Web site vowing to "fight on, in every caucus and primary remaining" while acknowledging that he would have to devote time to his reelection bid for his congressional seat.
In dueling appearances in Northern Virginia, Obama and Clinton hammered at familiar themes: Obama focusing on hope; Clinton, on experience. Both pledged to bring change after eight years of President Bush and run forcefully against McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee.
"Probably not since Harry Truman have we had a president who will inherit two wars, an economy in trouble, millions of people losing their health care and millions of families on the brink of losing their homes," Clinton told more than 500 people at Grace E. Metz Middle School in Manassas, stressing the need for the president to be ready the first day in office.
Rachel Querry and daughter Kate, 7, traveled from their home in New Market in Frederick County to see Clinton at the school. Once a supporter of former North Carolina senator John Edwards, Querry said after the rally that she had been persuaded to vote for Clinton.
"She drew distinctions between her and Obama in a way that was direct but not nasty," Querry said.
A short drive away, Obama, joined by Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who has endorsed him, spoke to supporters at T.C. Williams, using the high school's racially and economically segregated past -- as told in the book and movie "Remember the Titans" -- to describe his agenda to improve the quality of schools and access to higher education. More than 4,000 people crowded into the school to see him; hundreds more, unable to get in, waited on the sidewalks. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) endorsed the senator at the event.
Obama challenged the criticism that he hasn't had enough Washington experience and that he is a "talker, not a doer."
"Nothing worthwhile ever happened in this country without somebody willing to hope," he said.
Across the region and on national television, surrogates for Obama and Clinton made the cases for their candidates. Kaine squared off against Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who is supporting Clinton, on ABC News' "This Week" program. O'Malley then traveled to Bethesda, where he debated Kennedy before a group of Democratic activists.
Kennedy invoked the memory of his slain brothers as he urged support for Obama, saying the senator "could call us to our highest ideals."
Bill Clinton put in a full schedule on his wife's behalf, appearing at two church services and at Leisure World, a senior center that is home to about 8,500 people and has its own voting precinct, one of the most active in Maryland.
At both Temple of Praise and Greater Mount Nebo AME Church in Bowie, he made tempered, conciliatory remarks about Obama, and his tone was met with applause by black audiences. Clinton's critical statements about Obama in New Hampshire and South Carolina last month rankled some in the black community.
Ethel Sligh of Upper Marlboro said she suspects that most church members are Obama supporters. But seeing Clinton "was awesome, just awesome," she said.
"He didn't come pressuring," said Sligh, an executive assistant with the federal Veterans Health Administration. "It does leave you with something to think about."
Staff writers Lori Aratani, Hamil R. Harris, Nelson Hernandez, Jerry Markon, Lisa Rein, Miranda S. Spivack and Ovetta Wiggins, polling director Jon Cohen and the Associated Press contributed to this report.