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Potomac primaries: Obama holds momentum

Clinton's recovery plan counts on the big-state contests on March 4.

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In Tuesday's primaries, the latest polls from Mason-Dixon show Obama leading Clinton in Maryland and Virginia with nearly identical numbers – 53 percent to 35 percent in Maryland and 53 percent to 37 percent in Virginia. There has been no polling in the District of Columbia, but with more than 50 percent of the population African-American and a healthy swath of educated white voters, Obama will win handily here.

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The parallels between Maryland and Virginia – one blue, the other red in general elections – are pronounced in primaries. Among Democratic voters, about 36 percent in Maryland are black versus 30 percent in Virginia (big advantage to Obama). Both have large suburban concentrations of educated, affluent voters (another Obama advantage). And both have working-class white areas – mostly in rural areas, but also in suburban Baltimore (advantage Clinton).

Of Tuesday's three races, Clinton is trying hardest to score an upset in Virginia, by focusing on her strengths – working-class white voters, suburban women, older voters, and Latinos. Because delegates are awarded by congressional district, winning the popular vote in a state primary is more about bragging rights than about delegate counts.

If Clinton can do better than expected in any of the remaining contests this month, she can claim a victory of sorts. If she can win one, that would be huge. Still, analysts say, "momentum" isn't what it used to be.

"A lot of the momentums have been wrung out of the system," says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who is not affiliated with a presidential campaign. "Everyone's enjoyed their moment so far, and really, what drives the momentum is the level of press coverage that these events get. We in D.C. and Virginia and Maryland and Louisiana are going to get a lot less coverage ... than Super Tuesday did."

In a way, the Democratic nomination battle is a three-part race – the horse race of polls, the delegate race, and the dollar chase.

"The same battle of expectations from 2007 has now shifted to a new battle," says Anthony Corrado, an expert on campaign finance at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

Both Obama and Clinton raised roughly $100 million in 2007, but Obama's fundraising has taken off, putting Clinton at a bit of a disadvantage. Her loan to herself of $5 million last week signaled trouble, but she has recovered financially. Analysts expect both campaigns to have enough money going forward to do what they need to do.

In the Republican race, Sen. John McCain's coronation for the Republican nomination had a couple of hiccups over the weekend, as former Gov. Mike Huckabee won two caucuses – one of them (Kansas) by a wide margin. The victories represent more of an embarrassment to Senator McCain than a serious threat to his nomination – his delegate lead is prohibitively large – but they do signal continuing agitation among conservatives that some of McCain's policy positions are anathema to Republican orthodoxy.

Over the weekend, the Conservative Political Action Conference closed with the results of a straw poll, and the winner was former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who dropped out of the race last Thursday. It was another embarrassment for McCain, but the party establishment is continuing to close ranks behind the Arizona senator, as elected officials issue their endorsements.