By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton won critically important victories in Ohio and Texas last night, defying predictions of an imminent end to her presidential candidacy and extending the remarkable contest for the Democratic nomination to Pennsylvania's April primary and perhaps well into the summer.
Clinton also won in Rhode Island, while Sen. Barack Obama captured Vermont. Her victories snapped his winning streak at 12 consecutive contests, rejuvenated her struggling candidacy and jolted a Democratic Party establishment that was beginning to see Obama as the likely nominee.
Clinton still faces daunting odds in her bid for the nomination. Obama began the day with a lead in pledged delegates that will be hard for her to overcome in the 12 primaries and caucus remaining, despite the results from the four states voting yesterday. But her advisers said that the big win in Ohio alone would force a serious look at both candidates and that the race was far from over.
Yesterday's voting came after two weeks of intensive and increasingly acrimonious campaigning. Clinton, her back to the wall, played the role of aggressor, challenging Obama on his readiness to be commander in chief and chastising him on trade and health care. Obama attempted to fend off those attacks with the hope of scoring victories that his advisers were confident would drive Clinton from the race. But exit polls showed that, among late-deciding voters, Clinton had a clear edge.
Former president Bill Clinton had said earlier that she needed to win both big states to have a realistic chance of winning the nomination, and she delivered. But even before the Texas results were in, she made clear that she would continue.
"For everyone here in Ohio and across America who's ever been counted out but refused to be knocked out, and for everyone who has stumbled but stood right back up, and for everyone who works hard and never gives up, this one is for you," she said.
As the crowd chanted, "Yes, she will! Yes, she will!," Clinton said she is in the race to win. "You know what they say: 'As Ohio goes, so goes the nation,' " she said to cheers from supporters. "Well, this nation's coming back and so is this campaign," she continued. "We're going on. We're going strong and we're going all the way."
Obama, speaking in San Antonio before Texas was counted, congratulated Clinton on her victories in Ohio and Rhode Island, something she had never done during his winning streak, but he said her successes would not stop his march toward the nomination.
"We know this," he said. "No matter what happens tonight, we have nearly the same delegate lead as we had this morning, and we are on our way to winning this nomination."
As if to underscore his confidence about the nomination, Obama said he had called Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) to congratulate him on clinching the Republican nomination and said he looked forward to debating the future of the country. McCain, he said, "has fallen in line behind the very same policies that have ill-served America."
Later he criticized McCain and Clinton for dismissing his call for change as "eloquent but empty" and vowed to continue his campaign for change and a new politics in Washington.
A total of 370 pledged delegates were at stake in the four contests. Heading into yesterday, Obama had a lead of about 160 pledged delegates, according to the two campaigns. When superdelegates -- members of Congress, governors and party leaders -- were included, he held a slightly smaller overall advantage. Clinton would be hard-pressed to overtake Obama in pledged delegates in the remaining contests, but he cannot get to the 2,025 needed to win the nomination with pledged delegates alone, likely leaving the outcome in the hands of superdelegates.
The delegate picture last night was murky. It appeared that Clinton and Obama would emerge from Rhode Island and Vermont with an equal number. Clinton stands to gain a small advantage from the Ohio results, but Texas was far harder to read. Texas was awarding delegates not only on the basis of its primary but also on the results of precinct caucuses that convened last night after the polls closed.
Because of this and other wrinkles in the Texas system, Clinton's victory in the primary will not necessarily translate into a delegate victory once both contests are counted.
The next big contest will come on April 22 in Pennsylvania. Clinton has the support of Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D), who had predicted earlier that if she won Ohio and Texas, she would easily win his state.
Before Pennsylvania come the Wyoming caucuses on Saturday and the Mississippi primary next Tuesday. Both are considered strong Obama states and his advisers predicted he would offset any loss of delegates in yesterday's contests with victories there.
But the race could well go through Puerto Rico's June 7 primary with no clear outcome. That would bring the issue of what to do with delegations in Michigan and Florida, which were barred from the national convention because they moved up their primaries in violation of party rules. Clinton has called for those delegations to be seated, which Obama has opposed. Party officials now may need to begin to find a compromise acceptable to both sides.
Exit polls showed that Clinton won in Ohio and Texas by reassembling the coalition that had been the backbone of her support before Obama began his winning streak after Super Tuesday: women, white working-class voters and Latinos.
She won women in Ohio and Texas by double digits and broke about even among men in both states. She won among white women in both states by wide margins and also won among white men in Ohio by 21 percentage points.
In Texas, she carried Latinos, who made up more than a third of the electorate, by more than 2 to 1.
She won self-identified Democrats in both big states. She ran evenly with Obama among independents, normally a strong constituency for him.
The biggest margins for Clinton came among white, non-college-educated voters. She was running about 25 percentage points ahead among these voters in Texas and led by nearly 40 points in Ohio. Non-college-educated white voters made up almost half of the Ohio electorate.
The foundering economy was overwhelmingly the dominant issue in Ohio, with about 3 in 5 voters calling it the country's biggest problem. In Texas, about half of yesterday's voters cited the economy as the No. 1 issue. Iraq and health care trailed in both states.
Clinton's aggressive campaign appeared to have swayed voters, particularly in Texas. Of the roughly one-fifth of Texans who said they decided on a candidate in the final three days, Clinton was winning by more than 20 percentage points. In Ohio, about a quarter said they had made up their minds in the final three days. Clinton was winning decisively among those voters as well, but by a considerably smaller margin.
Clinton appeared increasingly confident as the day went along. She began with a round of interviews in Texas, then flew to Ohio for her election-night party. Obama sounded cautious about his prospects.
Asked on his campaign plane yesterday afternoon whether he thought the battle was likely to go on at least until Pennsylvania, he said: "What my head tells me is that we've got a very sizable delegate lead that is going to be hard to overcome. . . . But look: She is a tenacious and determined candidate and so we're just going to make sure we work as hard as we can as long as it takes."
Obama said the Clinton camp had run "a pretty negative campaign over the last couple of weeks," adding that he had resisted answering in kind. He said he was surprised that the Clinton team's criticism of the media as being soft on him had prompted a change in the tone of coverage of his campaign. "I didn't expect that you guys would bite on that," he said. "But you know, it is what it is."
The past two weeks saw a significant swing in the state of the Texas and Ohio races. Weeks ago Clinton held substantial leads in both states, but Obama began to close the gap when he started winning primaries and caucuses after Super Tuesday on Feb. 5.
On Feb. 21, the candidates met in Austin for the first of two scheduled debates in the battleground states. Obama flew to South Texas the next morning for his first visit to heavily Hispanic areas of the state -- Clinton country in the estimation of his advisers -- and returned for a rally at the state capitol in Austin that drew 20,000 people.
At that point, Obama's advisers were increasingly confident that he could win at least one of the two big states. Other Democrats interpreted Clinton's demeanor at the debate -- and the decision by her campaign not to begin airing attack ads the next day -- as signs that she was worried about appearing too negative in what might be the final two weeks of her candidacy.
But within 48 hours, her demeanor changed sharply. In Ohio on Feb. 23, she blistered Obama about a campaign flier that she said contained "blatantly false" depictions of her health-care plan and her position on the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Waving the mailers, she said, "Shame on you, Barack Obama," as she challenged her rival to "meet me in Ohio and let's have a debate about your tactics and your behavior in this campaign."
Three days later, the two appeared at Cleveland State University for their next debate, a more pointed encounter than their Texas encounter.
The campaign took another turn last Friday, when the Clinton team began running a new ad in Texas challenging Obama's credentials to be commander in chief. The ad featured the sound of a ringing telephone and images of sleeping children. It asked voters to consider whom they wanted in the White House if a crisis were to erupt in the middle of the night.
The spot came after a sharp internal debate among Clinton's advisers, with her chief strategist pushing hard to put the commercial on the air despite concerns that its negative tone could backfire. Obama's campaign countered immediately with a response that featured similar imagery but argued that on the biggest foreign policy decision of the past eight years -- whether to go to war in Iraq -- Clinton had voted yes while Obama had spoken out against it.
Staff writers Perry Bacon Jr. with Clinton and Shailagh Murray with Obama and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.