By Anne E. Kornblut and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 20, 2008
PHILADELPHIA, Apr. 19 -- Sen. Barack Obama launched an array of attacks in the final weekend before the Pennsylvania primary, hoping to regain momentum and increase pressure on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to drop out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
After a six-week stretch featuring the kind of intensive campaigning not seen since the Iowa caucuses, Clinton is favored to win Tuesday's contest, but both camps are working furiously to top expectations. Clinton is counting on a decisive victory here to keep her candidacy alive, while Obama is outspending his rival by a huge margin with the goal of limiting her showing or stealing an eleventh-hour victory.
As Obama spent Saturday on a whistle-stop tour through eight cities, his campaign began airing two television spots that are among the most sharply negative he has used in the protracted nominating battle.
"The fact is, she has a different idea about what is at stake in this election than I do," Obama said at a stop in Lancaster. "She just wants to change political parties. I want to change the way politics is done in Washington."
While the senator from Illinois was seeking a knockout punch, Clinton was using her own hard-hitting tactics over the weekend, hoping that a big win Tuesday would give pause to hundreds of undecided superdelegates who are poised to determine the eventual nominee.
Her campaign was making automated phone calls to voters criticizing Obama's vote for the "Bush-Cheney energy plan" and another criticizing his health-care plan.
She also targeted Obama's reputation for rhetorical flourish during a morning appearance in West Chester, saying, "I don't want to just show up and give one of these whoop-de-do speeches and just kind of get everybody whipped up. . . . I want everybody thinking about what we want to do starting on Tuesday."
"We have got to realize our future really depends on who the next president is, this is not a throwaway election," she added.
One of Obama's new ads targets Clinton's proposal for health-care reform, with a narrator saying, 'Hillary Clinton's attacking, but what's she not telling you about her health-care plan? It forces everyone to buy insurance, even if you can't afford it." Clinton's campaign says the plan would provide sufficient subsidies to make health-care coverage affordable.
The other draws from the steady stream of newspaper endorsements Obama has won in Pennsylvania to both boost his message of change and assail Clinton, quoting among others an editorial in Scranton's Times-Tribune that says she "would further the deep divisiveness" in the country.
Clinton, who was on her own five-city campaign swing Saturday, pushed back at a stop in York, calling the health-care ad "curious" and saying, "Instead of attacking the problem, he chooses to attack my solution."
In the more than six weeks since Clinton kept her campaign going forward with primary victories in Texas and Ohio, the candidates have both endured grueling schedules and numerous setbacks. Obama delivered a well-received speech on race in Philadelphia last month after a firestorm was created by the controversial comments of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. More recently, he has faced a constant stream of questions about comments he made at a San Francisco fundraiser, characterizing some in economically hard-hit small towns as "bitter" people who "cling" to religion and guns.
The effect of such controversies was to force Obama to change course in recent days. After tough questions in a Wednesday debate here put him on his heels, Obama tacked away from his efforts to look past Clinton to a general-election battle with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), taking sharper aim at the senator from New York and what he calls her "slash-and-burn" tactics.
Clinton faced her own major distraction with her since-discredited claim that she came under sniper fire during a visit to Bosnia as first lady. She was also slammed in recent days by liberals for criticizing the advocacy group MoveOn.org in her own closed-door fundraiser, when she said, "MoveOn didn't even want us to go into Afghanistan. I mean, that's what we're dealing with."
Meanwhile, Obama aides sought in a conference call Saturday to keep the Bosnia story alive, with retired Maj. Gen. Walter Stewart accusing Clinton of lacking the "moral authority . . . to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier." A Clinton spokesman called that an "outrageous claim."
Both candidates -- as well as party leaders nervously watching as McCain assembles his general-election effort -- are working hard to come out of Tuesday's voting with momentum. The latest overall delegate count from the Associated Press had Obama leading 1,645 to 1,507, with 2,025 needed to claim the nomination.
"If it's an extremely positive day for Senator Clinton, it would mean that the fight for the nomination goes forward," said Rep. Chaka Fattah, an Obama supporter who represents Philadelphia. "If Obama does well beyond expectations in Pennsylvania, it really will be the beginning of the end of the process. But in all likelihood, it's going to be what we've seen in the past: It's going to be another step along the way."
While polls have suggested that the "bitter" controversy hasn't harmed Obama with Pennsylvania voters, several strategists, including independent ones, say it halted what appeared to the makings of an Obama ascent. Still, the senator is expected to benefit disproportionately from the 230,000 new Democrats who have registered since January; one political scientist in the state said his polling suggests that about 62 percent of those voters are Obama supporters.
Roughly half of the delegates at stake on Tuesday will come from Philadelphia and its immediate environs. The rest are scattered across a patchwork that is at once rural, industrial and urban, stretching from wealthy bedroom communities to Allegheny coal towns.
Pennsylvania's contest is open only to Democrats, but general-election strategies have been adopted here by both candidates. Clinton has followed the model Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (a prominent Obama backer) used in 2006 to defeat incumbent GOP Sen. Rick Santorum -- relying on working-class votes in Reagan Democrat strongholds such as Casey's home town of Scranton, where Clinton visited her grandparents as a child.
Obama is following the "East of the Susquehanna" strategy -- mastered by Gov. Edward G. Rendell (who is aggressively working for Clinton) -- which requires candidates to run up huge margins in the politically moderate Philadelphia suburbs. A Friday night Obama rally in the city drew 35,000.
The delegate tally will be decided by how each Democrat fares in the state's 19 congressional districts, in addition to the popular vote. Some districts are worth more than others, based on how many Democrats turned out in the last general election. Fattah's district, for example, which went overwhelmingly for Sen. John F. Kerry in 2004, has the highest allotment: Nine delegates plus one alternate.
But, as in other contests so far this year, the popular vote does not guarantee any sort of massive bump in the overall take. That will make it difficult, though not impossible, for either Clinton or Obama to change the delegate math substantially on Tuesday, both sides concede.
Clinton strategist Geoff Garin, in an e-mail to supporters sent out Friday, said of Pennsylvania that "a win there will do two things: give us momentum that will carry us through the races that follow, and show that Hillary is still the best choice to beat John McCain in the big, competitive states that will decide the race in November."
"The Obama campaign is outspending us three-to-one in Pennsylvania. But I'm confident we can win in Pennsylvania, and I know Hillary is too," Garin wrote. Clinton campaign aides said that at least 7,000 volunteers are actively working in the state, whose eight largest media markets are now saturated with ads.
Each is also seeking to poach from the other's base. Obama spent much of the weekend touring Clinton country, in Erie, Williamsport, Scranton and the like, while Clinton was scouring the Philadelphia suburbs and kicked off her final push in Haverford, with her mother and daughter, on Thursday. Clinton holds significant advantages in the state, including its large population of older, lower-income voters who have proved loyal to her in other contests and the backing of both Rendell and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter.
Rendell has practically taken over the role of Clinton campaign manager in Pennsylvania, advisers said, spending an extraordinary amount of time toward turning his political machine into a primary operation.
But Obama has invested heavily to make up ground, using his big financial advantage to air up to $3 million per week worth of television ads. He has two high-profile surrogates, Casey and Rep. Patrick J. Murphy, a freshman Democrat from the Philadelphia suburbs.
He has also carried most key newspaper endorsements, including from the Philadelphia Daily News and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The outcome Tuesday could be decided in certain swing regions. One is the Lehigh Valley, anchored by Allentown and home to about 150,000 Democrats of all varieties. Another is south-central Pennsylvania, including Lancaster, York, Lebanon and Cumberland. This region counts around 400,000 Democrats, also of various demographic profiles and who follow unpredictable voting patterns. The city of Lancaster, for instance, is a progressive antiwar oasis, tucked inside a more conservative county known for its large Amish population.
"It's like a chessboard. Each of the pieces plays a certain role," said G. Terry Madonna, a pollster and political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. Based on the Democratic voter population, Madonna estimated that Clinton holds a natural advantage in the state of six to nine percentage points.
Barring a surprise win by Obama, the campaign is poised to shift immediately on Tuesday evening to its next playing field: Indiana and North Carolina, where Democrats will go to the polls on May 6.
Staff writer Perry Bacon Jr., traveling with Clinton, contributed to this report.