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In R.I., Obama Makes Inroads

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By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 2, 2008

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- While Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama have spent most of the past two weeks focused on delegate-rich Texas and Ohio, tiny Rhode Island -- with 21 pledged delegates at stake Tuesday -- is reveling in its unaccustomed position of relevance in a Democratic presidential nominating contest.

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This state has long been seen as strongly favorable to Clinton. She and her husband, Bill Clinton, visited so often during their White House days that the former president once joked that he ought to pay state taxes. The senator from New York has also lined up the support of most of the state's Democratic establishment, including Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who hosted a fundraiser for her last Sunday, and Claiborne Pell, the respected 89-year-old former senator.

The demographics here would also seem to provide an advantage to Clinton -- Rhode Island is heavily blue-collar, working-class and the most Catholic state in the country. White Catholics have provided strong support for Clinton in other New England states.

But if there is any question that the momentum in the race is with Obama, consider the view of Rudy Almada, an electrical inspector who, based on voting so far, should be one of Clinton's most loyal backers.

"I don't know who to vote for," Almada said, shaking his head on a breezy day in Providence's old downtown. "I normally would support Hillary," he said. "She has a serious answer for every question you can come up with. . . . But I want to hear more from Obama."

"Now that he has the country's attention, I want to listen to him," Almada said. "There must be something I'm missing."

Almada will have the chance to hear Obama directly on Saturday. In a testament to the importance being placed on every state and delegate in the hard-fought Democratic contest, the candidate will take time away from Texas and Ohio to stump in this state as well as in Vermont, which will also hold a primary on Tuesday.

Hoping to deal a morale-crippling blow to Clinton, Obama opened an office in Providence a little more than two weeks ago, with 25 paid staffers working out of a prime location on Westminster Street. One of the staffers, communications director Caleb Weaver, came here from Missouri, where Obama was able to eke out a victory by just 10,000 votes on Feb. 5.

The team has organized more than two dozen "house parties," recruited several hundred volunteers to work phone banks and is "outspending her three to one on TV here," according to Weaver.

Obama also has his own big-name supporters, particularly Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy and ex-senator Lincoln D. Chafee, a former Republican who became an independent after losing his 2006 reelection bid. Chafee said Obama's early opposition to the Iraq war, coupled with Clinton's vote to authorize the war, is the main reason he is backing the senator from Illinois.

But Obama's supporters are calling Rhode Island a tough state for their candidate. "I think the Obama people are pretty apprehensive. They know what they're up against," said Chafee, now with Brown University. "The Clintons have really invested here. . . . They've been working Rhode Island through their contacts."

Weaver, the Obama communications director, said: "We certainly see it as a bit of an uphill struggle. But we're closing the gap, and it's going to get competitive."


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