By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Sen. Barack Obama won the Wisconsin Democratic primary decisively last night, extending his winning streak to nine consecutive contests and dealing another significant blow to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose imperiled presidential candidacy now hangs on the outcome of showdowns in Ohio and Texas in two weeks.
After a week of sparring that included the first negative ads of the campaign, Obama emerged victorious in a critical general-election battleground state. For the second week in a row, the senator from Illinois made inroads into the coalition that Clinton has counted on to carry her to the nomination -- women and white working-class voters -- while rolling up big margins among white men.
In Wisconsin's Republican primary, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) won an easy victory over former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, moving him ever closer to clinching the party's nomination. In his speech afterward, McCain all but dismissed Clinton as a potential adversary, focusing his rhetorical fire on Obama as offering an "eloquent but empty call for change."
Obama celebrated his win at a boisterous Houston rally attended by an estimated 19,000 people and exhorted them to give him another important push toward the Democratic nomination in Texas's March 4 primary. "Houston, the change we seek is still months and miles away, and we need the good people of Texas to help us get there," he said. "We will need you to fight for every delegate it takes to win this nomination."
Mindful of McCain's attacks, he struck back at the likely GOP nominee. "I revere and honor John McCain's service to his country. He's a genuine hero," Obama told the audience at the Toyota Center. "But when he embraces George Bush's failed economic policies, when he says he's willing to send our troops into another 100 years in Iraq, then he represents the party of yesterday, and we want to be the party of tomorrow."
Clinton was in Ohio, the other big March 4 state, appearing at a rally in Youngstown, where she did not acknowledge the Wisconsin results and another setback that pushed her further from the nomination that at one time seemed hers almost for the asking. She focused instead on the road ahead and the choices she said confront Democratic voters.
She told the audience: "One of us is ready to be commander in chief in a dangerous world. . . . One of us has a plan to provide health care for every single American -- no one left out. . . . One of us has faced serious Republican opposition in the past. And one of us is ready to do it again."
With 90 percent of the precincts in Wisconsin reporting, Obama had about 58 percent of the vote to Clinton's 41 percent. Aides to Clinton said she called Obama to congratulate him after the outcome became clear.
If the Wisconsin campaign was any indication, the next two weeks could be the most negative of the Democratic race. The Clinton team has seized on a series of issues and Obama statements to challenge his readiness to be president and his credibility as a candidate. Obama has not shied from firing back, using his stump speeches to issue pointed rebuttals of Clinton's criticism and airing response ads to her television commercials, while his advisers have sparred with Clinton's in a flurry of daily conference calls and press releases.
An opening test for the candidates will come Thursday night in Austin, when the candidates meet in their first debate since before the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday contests. Clinton's campaign sees that debate, and a second one next Tuesday in Cleveland, as her best opportunity to shift voters away from talk of Obama's growing momentum.
There were 74 convention delegates at stake in Wisconsin last night, along with 20 in Hawaii, where that state's caucuses were being held too late for East Coast newspaper deadlines. Obama was favored to win there.
Even before Wisconsin and Hawaii, Obama held a lead over the senator from New York in delegates awarded in the primaries and caucuses. When superdelegates -- the 795 members of Congress, governors and other party officials with automatic credentials for the Democratic National Convention -- are included, he is still ahead, but by a narrower margin.
About 30 percent of pledged delegates have yet to be awarded, and several hundred superdelegates remain uncommitted. But, given Democratic rules that award delegates proportionally, Obama's slowly expanding advantage will become more and more difficult for Clinton to overcome unless she can win upcoming contests by huge margins.
The Clinton team had sought to play down expectations in Wisconsin, describing the state as one in which the combination of liberal party activists and independent voters gave Obama a clear advantage. But Wisconsin's electorate also includes a substantial number of blue-collar workers who have been prime Clinton targets in other races, and an African American community that is smaller than others in many states where Obama has done well.
If Obama were to win Hawaii, as was widely expected, that would give him his 10th straight victory -- eight states, the District and the Virgin Islands -- since Super Tuesday as the campaign heads to Ohio and Texas. Clinton advisers have said she must win those two states.
Clinton's roots in Texas go back three decades, to the 1972 campaign of George S. McGovern. She begins the Texas campaign with clear strength in the Hispanic community and a network of friends and supporters in many other key constituencies. But Obama hopes to tap a younger generation of leaders and to cut into Clinton's advantage among Latino and working-class voters.
In Ohio, Clinton advisers see an electorate highly sensitive to economic issues and potentially receptive to her bread-and-butter message of bringing aid, benefits and opportunity to workers displaced or threatened by job losses because of global changes in the economy. She also enjoys the support of Gov. Ted Strickland.
Obama plans to stress differences with Clinton on trade and the North American Free Trade Agreement, and has begun to sharpen his economic message in anticipation of the Ohio campaign. Early polls have given Clinton the lead in Ohio -- one showed her with a double-digit advantage -- but both sides anticipate a fierce campaign there.
The key to Obama's success in Wisconsin was his ability to tap into the coalition Clinton had assembled in many other states earlier this year. It was a replication of the contours of his victory last week in Virginia. If it continues, it will significantly change the Democratic race, putting Clinton at a substantial disadvantage in Ohio as well as other upcoming states, including Pennsylvania, which will vote April 22.
Obama was attracting more support from women, less-educated and lower-income voters, and white working-class voters than he generally has in other states. By breaking into Clinton's coalition, he was able to overcome a Wisconsin electorate that was heavily female and that included no more independent voters than it did four years ago.
Women made up 58 percent of the electorate in Wisconsin, and they have been a key Clinton constituency throughout the campaign. But rather than winning them, as she has in key contests, the two candidates split the group last night. Obama, meanwhile, won men by more than 30 percentage points.
He did as well with white men as he has done in any state other than Utah. Among white women, Clinton had only a narrow edge last night. In 24 previous contests where there have been Democratic exit polls, she carried white women by double digits 19 times.
Obama won the votes of those earning less than $50,000 and got about half of white voters without a college degree, his best showing in any major contest.
Staff writers Anne E. Kornblut with Clinton and Jonathan Weisman with Obama, and polling director Jon Cohen and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.