By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 4, 2008 4:57 PM
With the potentially decisive votes of the primary election season in their hands, voters in Texas, Ohio, Vermont and Rhode Island went to the polls today to choose their candidates for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations and possibly wrap up at least one of the races.
For Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), the primaries of what has been dubbed "Super Tuesday II" offer a chance to narrow the lead in delegates that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has built after winning 11 straight nominating contests. Her husband, former president Bill Clinton, has said she needs to win both of today's delegate-rich prizes, Texas and Ohio, to continue her candidacy and have a realistic chance of capturing the Democratic nomination at the party's national convention in Denver in late August.
But at a midday news conference in Houston, Clinton refused to countenance the prospect that a loss in one or both of the states could effectively leave her with too much ground to make up in the all-important delegate count with only a dozen contests remaining after today in 10 states and two territories.
Obama began the day with a total of 1,386 pledged delegates and unpledged "superdelegates," compared to Clinton's total of 1,276, according to an Associated Press tally. Of the 445 total delegates available from the four states, 370 pledged delegates are at stake in today's contests. At least 2,025 delegate votes are needed to sew up the Democratic nomination.
For Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the day's primaries offered an opportunity to clinch the GOP nomination in the face of the persistent long-shot candidacy of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. McCain has amassed 1,014 delegates and needs 1,191 to secure the nomination at the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis in early September. Up for grabs in today's primaries are 256 delegates, giving McCain the chance to seal the deal.
McCain said last night that he was confident of winning enough delegates today to "move on to the general campaign." But he added, "I still respect Governor Huckabee's right to remain in this race for as long as he feels necessary to do so."
Huckabee, visiting a polling station in Texas this morning, voiced his usual optimism in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. "We're still hoping for a Texas win here today," he told reporters. "My opponent has been on vacation. I think Texans are going to pay attention to that."
The real suspense, however, resided in the states' Democratic contests, particularly those in Ohio, where Clinton hoped to hold off the Illinois senator, and Texas, where polls showed the two Democrats running neck and neck heading into the primary.
Three of the latest polls in Texas showed Clinton clinging to narrow leads that were within the polls' margins of error. In Ohio, several recent polls had Clinton ahead by margins ranging from four to 16 percentage points, and one poll had the race dead even.
Officials in Ohio and Texas predicted that turnout would break records for primary voting. But weather was a factor in Ohio, with freezing rain falling in the northern part of the state and flood warnings issued for areas farther south.
Faced with the prospect that defeats in one or both of the populous states could prove decisive, Clinton sought today to focus attention on Obama's ties to a Chicago businessman and former campaign contributor, Antoin "Tony" Rezko, who faces trial in a political corruption case. Obama told a news conference in San Antonio yesterday that Rezko was "a friend and supporter of mine for many years," but that the charges against him "are completely unrelated to me."
In her news conference in Houston, Clinton said she was optimistic about winning both Texas and Ohio.
"I feel really good, not only about the primaries today but about what's possible for us here in Texas come the fall," she said. She urged supporters to remember that Texas has a two-stage process, dubbed the "Texas two-step," in which caucuses are held in the evening after the polls close for the primary.
The Texas primary will allocate 126 delegates, and the follow-on caucuses account for 67 more. In addition, the state will send 35 unpledged delegates to the national convention, for a total of 228 delegate votes.
After appearances this morning at polling places in Houston, Clinton planned to stop in Dallas before flying to Columbus, Ohio, to await the returns.
The Obama campaign, meanwhile, appealed to supporters to call lists of potential primary voters to urge them to turn out for the freshman senator.
"This could be the most important day of our whole campaign, and supporters all across the country are doing their part to help Barack succeed" by making phone calls from their own homes, the campaign said in an e-mail. "It's simple and fun, and it can have an enormous impact on today's elections."
Obama planned to remain in Texas today, holding his primary night gathering in San Antonio.
Polls opened in most of Texas at 7 a.m. Central time and were scheduled to close at 7 p.m. Central time. In Ohio, the polls opened at 6:30 a.m. and were scheduled to close at 7:30 p.m. Eastern time.
A total of 533 pledged delegates are up for grabs in the 12 Democratic nominating contests that are being held after today, according to the Democratic National Committee. The biggest prize is Pennsylvania, where 151 pledged delegates are at stake in its April 22 primary.