By Anne E. Kornblut and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
BEAUMONT, Tex., March 3 -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton vowed to press on in her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination after critical primary tests in Ohio and Texas on Tuesday, even as advisers to Sen. Barack Obama said the latest round of voting would do little to improve her standing in a race in which she has been dealt setback after setback.
Clinton advisers claimed fresh signs of momentum and continued to attempt to raise doubts about Obama on Monday, questioning his trade policies and ties to a Chicago developer. Clinton (N.Y.) predicted victory and insisted that a comeback is on the horizon. "I'm just getting warmed up," she said in a news conference in Ohio.
But it was unclear whether Clinton could derail Obama (Ill.) without a dramatic showing that would bring her a big win in delegates awarded Tuesday. With Obama riding a solid advantage in convention delegates into the latest contests, his aides dismissed the latest attacks as part of a "kitchen sink" strategy.
"They keep moving the goal posts, but at some point you run out of field," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said Monday. He added that according to his count of pledged delegates, it appears virtually impossible that Clinton could overtake Obama in the remaining contests.
"This is their last huge opportunity on one day to try and turn around the delegate numbers," he said. He said he will not call for her to withdraw from the race if she does not close the delegate gap, but added: "I think there should be a sober analysis of where the race stands."
A total of 370 pledged delegates are at stake in primaries in Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island and Vermont on Tuesday. That includes 64 that will be awarded in Texas caucuses, which are separate from the state's primary and require voters to return after participating in it.
After Tuesday, the April 22 primary in Pennsylvania -- a state where her aides believe she will enjoy strong advantages -- and its 170 pledged delegates are the next big prize. Obama aides estimate that Clinton would have to win the contests remaining on the calendar with an average of about 60 percent of the vote to catch Obama in the delegate count.
Both candidates campaigned in Texas on Monday night. Obama planned to spend primary day in the state, where he has had a small lead in most polling, and Clinton planned to return to Ohio, where she led in preelection surveys.
Some top Democrats remain concerned about the effect of a nominating contest that drags into the summer. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) last week that he believes such a scenario could cause long-term problems in uniting the party against the Republican Party's candidate -- a position he has long held, Democratic sources said.
Chief Clinton strategist Mark Penn said Monday that he has already seen evidence that a controversial ad launched by the campaign on Friday, asking voters to consider which candidate they would want to pick up the phone at 3 a.m. in a time of crisis, had swung momentum in her favor. Penn called the ad a "tipping point" in the race.
He also suggested that Obama's alleged inability to stand up to Clinton on the national security question did not bode well for his chances of winning that argument against Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the all-but-certain Republican nominee, in the fall. "If Senator Obama can't be seen to be commander in chief against Senator Clinton, how can he possibly expect to be seen as someone who can win the commander-in-chief question against Senator McCain?" Penn asked.
Clinton began her day before dawn with a 5:30 appearance at a Jeep plant in Toledo. She shook hands with dozens of workers as they arrived, telling them, "I need your vote."
After a rally in Toledo, she flew to Texas, holding an event in an airport hangar in Beaumont and then a town hall meeting and rally in Austin. She cast a fiery, defiant tone throughout the day.
"I think I know what's happening and I believe I'm going to do very well tomorrow. . . . I think that's going to be a very significant message to the country, and then we move on to Pennsylvania and the states coming up," she told reporters at a news conference in Toledo.
In the evening, she taped a segment for "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and fielded questions from voters across Texas at an interactive town hall meeting.
Clinton aides, meanwhile, launched a two-pronged assault on Obama. They highlighted his ties to Chicago developer Antonin Rezko, who went on trial Monday, and a newly disclosed memo written by a Canadian official after he met with Obama economic adviser Austan Goolsbee. The official sent a dispatch back to Ottawa saying Goolsbee had assured him that Obama is not as protectionist as he has sounded on the campaign trail.
Eager for any advantage on a critical trade issue that has dominated much of the political discussion in Ohio, Clinton aides embraced the memo, dubbing the episode "NAFTA-gate." Clinton said the incident raises "serious questions" about Obama.
"I would ask you to look at that story. Substitute my name for Senator Obama," Clinton said. "If some of my advisers had been having private meetings with foreign governments and basically saying, "Ignore what I'm saying because it's only political rhetoric . . .' -- I think it raises serious questions." She accused Obama of doing "the old wink-wink" with Canadian officials and of attempting to deceive voters in Ohio, where the North American Free Trade Agreement is deeply unpopular.
But Clinton set aside discussions of NAFTA as she headed to Texas, a border state where the trade agreement is viewed more positively, and emphasized her experience.
Obama held events in San Antonio and Dallas before ending his day with a rally in Houston. The Canada controversy dominated an afternoon news conference in San Antonio, where he told reporters that Clinton is "running a tenacious campaign."
A week earlier, he had insisted that reports of a meeting between Goolsbee and a Canadian diplomat were false, and on Monday, Obama called the flap part of a smear effort by his rival's campaign. "I know the Clinton campaign has been true to its word in employing a kitchen-sink strategy," Obama said. "We've been catching what -- three, four things a day? This is one of them."
He said Goolsbee had visited the Canadian consulate in Chicago "as a courtesy" and had simply reiterated Obama's long-held commitment to improving NAFTA's labor and environmental standards. "Nobody reached out to the Canadians to try to assure them of anything," Obama said. "This notion that Senator Clinton is peddling, that somehow there's contradictions or winks and nods, has been disputed by all the parties involved."
Goolsbee has said that the author of the memo, Joseph DeMora, misinterpreted the tenor of their meeting, which was attended by two Canadian diplomats and reported on in writing. DeMora's memo said: "Noting anxiety among many U.S. domestic audiences about the U.S. economic outlook, Goolsbee candidly acknowledged the protectionist sentiment that has emerged, particularly in the Midwest, during the primary campaign."
It continued: "He cautioned that this messaging should not be taken out of context and should be viewed as more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans."
Staff writers Shailagh Murray with the Obama campaign and Paul Kane in Washington and washingtonpost.com staff writer Chris Cillizza in Washington contributed to this report.