Results Refocus Democratic Campaign

Clinton, Obama Clash Over Superdelegates

By Dan Balz and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 6, 2008

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's victories in Texas, Ohio and Rhode Island reinvigorated her once-shaky presidential candidacy and reshaped her debate with Sen. Barack Obama, but those successes yielded only a modest gain in the battle for delegates, underscoring the daunting odds she faces in overtaking Obama before the end of the primary season in early June.

As a newly confident Clinton (N.Y.) publicly entertained the idea of Obama (Ill.) running as her vice presidential nominee, advisers sketched out a new scenario for overcoming Obama's delegate lead: a Clinton win in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary in April and then persuading the more than 300 uncommitted superdelegates who are poised to decide the race that she would be the stronger general-election nominee.

Obama, who won only the Vermont primary on Tuesday, blamed his poor showing on Clinton's attacks and spent yesterday challenging her national security credentials, as she had done to him in the final days before the Texas and Ohio primaries. He also questioned whether she could truly withstand Republican attacks on ethical issues in a general-election campaign.

Some Democrats fear that a protracted and increasingly negative campaign, coupled with an intensified fight for the allegiance of the superdelegates, could lead to a badly divided Democratic Party and a weakened nominee for the fall campaign against Sen. John McCain.

The senator from Arizona clinched the Republican nomination on Tuesday and received President Bush's endorsement yesterday.

With 370 Democratic pledged delegates at stake on Tuesday, the Associated Press estimated that Clinton had a net gain of just 12 delegates overall with her three victories. Twelve delegates have not yet been allocated. As of yesterday afternoon, she still trailed Obama by 140 pledged delegates, or 101 overall when superdelegates were included.

"They're never even going to get close to erasing the pledged-delegate lead," said David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager. "Last night was a big window that closed for them."

But Harold Ickes, who oversees Clinton's delegate tracking, accused the Obama team of making "a phony distinction" between pledged delegates and superdelegates.

"We expect to be very close to him in overall delegates [at the end of the primaries] and expect that the remaining uncommitted delegates will decide which of the two candidates are the stronger and more prepared to run in the general election," he said. "We're confident that will be Hillary."

Obama has argued that those automatic delegates to the national convention should validate the results of the primaries and caucuses, while Clinton has said they should decide independently who would make the stronger nominee to run against McCain.

Clinton's team has assigned 20 staffers to focus exclusively on the superdelegates, one official said. Over the weekend, the team reached out to every uncommitted delegate amid rumors that Obama was preparing to roll out as many as 50 new endorsements this week. They found no evidence that a big bloc was ready to announce for Obama, but nonetheless made another round of calls to members of the Democratic National Committee on Tuesday.

"Our message to them was 'Keep your powder dry,' " one official said. "Their response was 'We will keep our powder dry.' " In light of Tuesday's results, Clinton's team plans to go back to uncommitted superdelegates with a new plea to back her campaign -- or at least to remain on the fence to await the results of upcoming contests.

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