By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 2, 2008
COLUMBUS, Ohio, March 1 -- With Texas and Ohio considered too close to call, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton escalated her argument with Sen. Barack Obama on Saturday over who is more ready to become commander in chief, as the candidates appealed to voters ahead of contests that will determine whether the Democratic race continues.
Clinton, whose husband said last week that she has to win both primaries, displayed a sense of urgency at a Saturday morning fundraiser in San Antonio. "We have to win on Tuesday," she told the audience. "That's not a surprise to any of you. And we are going to win on Tuesday."
At a rally in Fort Worth and aboard her campaign plane, the senator from New York continued to hammer home the message of the "ringing phone" television ad that she began airing in Texas on Friday, arguing that she, not Obama, has the experience to handle a foreign policy crisis.
Speaking with reporters on the plane, Clinton sidestepped a question about what moment in her career demonstrated her capacity to handle a foreign policy crisis. "That's not the right question," she said. "The question is: What have you done over the course of a lifetime to equip you for that moment?" Clinton said that while she and Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) would each point to a lifetime of experience in a potential general-election matchup, Obama would point to "a speech he made in 2002" -- a reference to his opposition to the Iraq war.
Obama's campaign displayed its own urgency on the national security issue by launching an ad in Texas featuring retired Gen. Merrill A. "Tony" McPeak, former Air Force chief of staff, that praises Obama's judgment in opposing the war. The new ad and three others come after Obama's campaign on Friday produced a counterpoint to Clinton's ringing-phone commercial -- a sign of concern about allowing the attack to go unanswered.
At a rally in Providence, R.I., Saturday afternoon, the senator from Illinois continued to question Clinton's judgment on the war as he pressed his change message. "Real change isn't voting for George Bush's war in Iraq and telling the American people you were actually voting for more diplomacy," Obama said. "The title of the bill was 'A resolution to authorize the use of the United States armed forces against Iraq.' That sounds like you were voting for authorizing the use of armed forces against Iraq."
Only a few weeks ago, Clinton held big leads in both Texas and Ohio. Obama's momentum after a string of victories has sharply reduced those margins, but public opinion polls showed neither candidate with a decisive advantage in either state.
Obama victories in Texas and Ohio would put pressure on Clinton to end her candidacy and avoid a prolonged and potentially divisive intraparty battle that could weaken the Democrats in the general election. Clinton victories would give her campaign a major boost and keep the race going at least until Pennsylvania's April 22 primary, even though she would continue to trail Obama in the delegate tallies. A split decision also could produce calls for Clinton to end her campaign, given Obama's lead in delegates.
The candidates' weekend schedules reflected the closeness of the races. Clinton and Obama were to arrive back in Ohio late Saturday after several days in Texas, then to campaign in Ohio on Sunday, with both planning stops in the same Columbus suburb. Both will return to Texas for more events Monday.
Top strategists for the two candidates sought to set expectations in advance of Tuesday's voting. "We've still got four days here, but I think we're heading to two close outcomes," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said in a telephone interview. "That is not going to be a good enough outcome for them."
Plouffe argued that even victories by Clinton in the popular vote would not be likely to net her enough pledged delegates to change the mathematical hurdles of trying to overtake Obama. But he said the Obama campaign already is organizing in the next states with primaries and caucuses, and will expand its efforts as needed. "If she stays in the race after March 4, then we have to keep accumulating delegates," he said.
Mark Penn, Clinton's chief strategist, dismissed fears that a lengthy race would split the party. "At the end of the day, with either of these two nominees, the party will enthusiastically embrace them," he said. "There shouldn't be any effort to short-circuit or shortchange the voters in the 16 jurisdictions here to go."
In addition to Ohio and Texas, Rhode Island and Vermont will hold primaries Tuesday, with a total of 370 pledged delegates at stake, the second-biggest delegate day of the year. Clinton is favored in Rhode Island, and Obama in Vermont. But those states are bit players in a competition that remains focused on Ohio and Texas.
All indications point to another day of potentially record turnout. In Texas, participation in early voting is 10 times higher than it was four years ago in a number of the state's biggest counties. In Ohio, the secretary of state has predicted that just over half the electorate may vote.
Strategists in both campaigns have been combing the early-vote data in Texas for clues to who may have the advantage, and both have found reasons for optimism. Obama's team sees big turnout among blacks in Houston and Dallas, and sizable increases in some Republican-dominated counties suggest that Obama may be pulling independents into the Democratic primary.
Clinton's camp is buoyed by signs of a big early vote in the heavily Hispanic counties of South Texas and by the fact that almost 60 percent of the early voters were women. Her ringing-phone ad, which includes images of sleeping children and a worried mother, is aimed at reminding women of the national security stakes in their votes Tuesday.
Clinton has deep roots in the Lone Star State, and they gave her an early lead, but Obama is tapping into a younger generation of Texans, some of whom are in the forefront of bringing back the Democratic Party after more than two decades of Republican ascendance.
"Texas should have been a pretty easy play for Clinton," said one strategist with wide experience in the state who spoke on the condition of anonymity to analyze the race candidly. "But it's true that those relationships that had been built went stale. . . . The reemergence of Democrats in Texas -- it obviously has a long way to go -- the people who are participating in it were never really part of Clinton's world."
The popular vote in Texas could go either way, according to Obama and Clinton strategists, but Obama may have an advantage in the delegate battle. That's because of the quirks in the distribution of delegates -- some of the districts that will award the most delegates are demographically more favorable to Obama -- as well as the split primary-caucus structure of the Texas vote.
Texas will hold a traditional primary Tuesday, and then, once the polls close, conduct caucuses at 8,000 sites. Obama has demonstrated organizational superiority in most of the earlier caucuses and expects to do the same this week. But Clinton's team has worked to organize Texas more energetically than it has some previous caucus states.
In Ohio, Clinton has maintained a small, single-digit lead in public polls in a campaign dominated by economic issues. Her team decided not to air its ringing-phone ad in Ohio because voters here are so focused on the economy. The key to victory may be whether Obama can undermine Clinton's traditional strength with blue-collar voters.
Clinton has the support of Gov. Ted Strickland and former senator John Glenn, both of whom are featured in her ads. Obama is strong in the major cities. Clinton hopes to establish her margins in rural areas and in economically hard-hit northeast Ohio.
The candidates have saturated Ohio TV screens with ads. Two big unions, the Service Employees International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers, also have made major buys supporting Obama. A Clinton official estimated that the Obama forces are outspending them by 4 to 1 in the state on television.
Staff writers Anne E. Kornblut with Clinton and Shailagh Murray with Obama contributed to this report.