8 Questions About The Pennsylvania Primary

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 22, 2008

What will it take to be declared the winner in Pennsylvania today?

1. Conventional wisdom has taken such a beating in this campaign that setting expectations for today's primary continues to confound the experts. The only thing everyone can agree on is that, given the makeup of Pennsylvania -- an older population with a significant blue-collar constituency and a sizable proportion of Roman Catholics -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton should win the popular vote. But as Democrat Matt Bennett put it, the candidates are like publicly -traded companies that need to hit an earnings target to lift their stock price.

But just what are the targets? Some say Clinton needs to win by 10 points -- which was her margin in Ohio last month. Others say eight points. Some say, given the amount of money Sen. Barack Obama is spending on television ads, anything over five points would be a respectable victory for Clinton. Staying within five points would give Obama the opportunity to assert that he overcame a state whose demographics tilted heavily to Clinton.

But the margin in the popular vote ultimately will be secondary to how Pennsylvania affects the battle for pledged delegates. Pennsylvania is the biggest remaining prize on the calendar, with 158 pledged delegates. Clinton badly needs to make up ground in the delegate fight and, given the way they're distributed, that could be difficult.

In the words of one Democratic strategist, the popular vote margin is a "feel-good barometer that may play out over a few days and longer if there is a big win, but then we will be on to the next contests. Ultimately, the second indicator [delegates] is more important and will have a longer effect because it is still the criteria we use to select a nominee."

Has the campaign weakened Obama or Clinton more for the general election?

2. Many Democrats argue that, when compared with where they stood at the start of the nomination battle in early 2007, Obama and Clinton have become stronger and more effective candidates. Clinton has demonstrated resilience, doggedness and grit in the face of continued adversity. Obama began as a totally untested candidate and has run a remarkably effective campaign that has generated passion and energy.

But as Pennsylvanians vote today, the candidates are showing the wear and tear of this long and grueling process. Clinton's negative ratings have risen dramatically over the past few months. She began with doubts about her credibility and trustworthiness, which have only intensified. In last week's Post-ABC News poll, her unfavorable rating was higher than it has ever been.

Obama also looks weaker than he did when he was running the table in late February with big victories in such places as Virginia, Wisconsin and some smaller-state caucuses. Since then he has been beset by one controversy after another and, while he handled some of them effectively -- his speech on race being the prime example -- there is no question that Republicans see him as more vulnerable than they did before.

A Democratic strategist summed up the candidates this way: "Either can win the general election, but anybody who thought Democrats would waltz into the White House this fall was sadly mistaken."

What is Obama's biggest general-election vulnerability?

3. Controversies over the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Obama's comments about why small-town Americans are "bitter" and "cling" to religion and guns, and the candidate's liberal policy views have created a mixture that gives Republicans hope that they can portray Obama as out of touch with heartland America.

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