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Analysis

Decisive Win Can't Forestall A Daunting Task

After seven weeks of campaigning for the state, Sen. Hillary Clinton wins the Pa. primary, bolstering her case for staying in the race against Sen. Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination. The outcome further muddles a race that has stretched on for nearly four months and sharply divided the party.

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By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Pennsylvania Democrats threw a much-needed lifeline to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton last night, offering a fresh incentive to keep pursuing her dimming hopes of winning the party's presidential nomination and turning the May 6 primaries in Indiana and North Carolina into critical showdowns against Sen. Barack Obama.

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Clinton's path to the nomination remains extraordinarily treacherous even after the victory in Pennsylvania. Her margin was decisive, but even some of her most loyal supporters privately expressed doubts last night that she can prevail in the long battle against Obama.

The senator from Illinois still leads in the number of pledged delegates and the popular vote. He is almost certain to hold the delegate lead and will probably maintain the popular-vote advantage when the primaries end in early June. Perhaps more important, Clinton's campaign is nearly broke, whereas Obama has an enormous amount of money in the bank to throw into the next two contests and beyond.

But for the second time in seven weeks, first in the Texas and Ohio primaries and now in Pennsylvania, Obama did not deliver a decisive blow against Clinton when he had an opportunity to bring the race to an end, despite heavily outspending her and waging an aggressive and negative campaign in the final days. His advisers had hoped to hold Clinton's victory margin to mid-single digits and appeared to have fallen short of that goal.

"He broke every spending record in this state trying to knock us out of this race," Clinton told her supporters in Philadelphia last night. "Well, the people of Pennsylvania had other ideas."

Obama's loss in Pennsylvania raised anew questions about his ability to win the big industrial states that will be critical to the Democrats' hopes of winning back the White House in November. In the coming days, Clinton's camp will try to play on those doubts with uncommitted superdelegates -- who have been moving toward Obama over the past two months -- urging them to remain neutral until the primaries are over.

Geoff Garin, Clinton's co-chief strategist, called Pennsylvania a potential turning point in the Democratic race. "Senator Obama had every opportunity to go out and make his case and show he could win an industrial state," he said. "The fact that Hillary not just held her own but gained strength at the end gives us real momentum going into Indiana and North Carolina."

David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, said the loss was expected and did little to change the trajectory of a nomination battle that continues to favor his candidate.

"Some states are stronger for our opponent," he said. "Some are stronger for us. We assumed she had an edge there [in Pennsylvania] and we would try to keep it as close as we could. You have to be clear-eyed about that. We have two contests coming up in two weeks. We'll see where the race is after that. . . . The structure of the delegate contest will not be changed appreciably, and that's the most important factor in the race."

By those calculations, Clinton faces an almost insurmountable hurdle. Going into Pennsylvania, Obama had 1,415 pledged delegates to Clinton's 1,251, according to the Associated Press. She led among superdelegates, 258 to 233, but that margin has been shrinking steadily over the past two months. Her victory may prevent a wholesale shift to Obama in the next few weeks, but her task remains daunting.

Obama's team expects to recoup any loss of delegates in Pennsylvania with the results in North Carolina and Indiana. After those, six contests will remain, and the chances of Clinton's winning enough of the remaining delegates to overtake Obama appears out of the question. Even her hope of taking a lead in the popular vote appears out of reach, given that Michigan and Florida will not be counted in the calculations because they violated Democratic Party rules in holding their primaries early.

"We don't think this is just going to be about some numerical metric," Garin said. "When we get to those days after June 3rd, we think the real choice is who's proven themselves to be the best candidate."


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