For Obama, the General Election Is Calling

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton poses for pictures after speaking at a campaign stop at Westside High School in Clear Fork, W.Va.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton poses for pictures after speaking at a campaign stop at Westside High School in Clear Fork, W.Va. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
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By Peter Slevin and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 13, 2008

CHARLESTON, W.Va., May 12 -- Sen. Barack Obama will make it clear on Tuesday that he has turned his attention to the general election, traveling to the November battleground states of Missouri and Michigan.

Looking past what is expected to be an easy win for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the West Virginia primary, Obama (Ill.) will embrace a two-track strategy that assumes she will continue to campaign aggressively in the remaining five primaries but allows him to increasingly shift his focus to the presumptive GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).

Determined to silence any remaining questions about whether he will be the Democratic nominee, Obama will also make a push in Michigan and Florida, two swing states where Democrats did not campaign this year because of a dispute over the primary calendar. Next week, Obama will spend three days campaigning, raising money and meeting party activists in Florida.

His campaign is eager to begin engaging McCain more directly, hoping to etch his profile with the broader electorate before the Republican candidate does it for him.

But in Michigan and Florida, Obama also hopes to begin the process of cleaning up the mess that followed the state parties' decision to schedule early primaries in violation of national party rules. He signaled support Monday for a compromise solution to seating Michigan's delegates that Clinton (N.Y.) firmly opposes. Obama aides hope that a resolution to the delegate impasse in those two states will neutralize another of her dwindling arguments for staying in the race.

The sense of campaigns heading in different directions was stark on Monday, as both candidates appeared in West Virginia. Obama spent barely four hours in Charleston before heading to Kentucky; Clinton campaigned full steam and planned a victory rally here Tuesday night. Although senior aides conceded that her path to the nomination becomes more uncertain every day, she stuck to her message that she is more electable than Obama.

"It's a fact that Democrats don't get elected unless West Virginia votes for you," Clinton said in rural Clear Fork.

Even with what is expected to be a big win here, Clinton will remain far behind in the number of pledged delegates awarded in primaries and caucuses. Obama continued on Monday to extend his lead among superdelegates, but Clinton was in no mood to heed the suggestions of some party leaders and soften her approach.

"My campaign is about solutions, not speeches," Clinton said, criticizing Obama for opposing a summer suspension -- which she and McCain back -- of the federal gasoline tax. "I happen to believe that when you're a leader, you should lead on behalf of the people you represent."

Obama's campaign assumes that he will lose in West Virginia on Tuesday and split a pair of May 20 contests, losing in Kentucky and winning in Oregon. The three primaries, strategists say, will give him a firm majority of pledged delegates, excluding Michigan and Florida, and the right to declare victory. A top Obama aide said the senator will probably hold a rally in one of the pivotal general-election states that evening.

Obama and his team, increasingly viewing Clinton as an afterthought, are anxious to engage McCain with less than six months until Election Day.

"He's shooting free throws," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said of McCain.

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