For Clinton and Obama, next six weeks are critical
By the next primary, April 22, the way to count Florida and Michigan may be settled.
The next six weeks of the election calendar are a desert. With no contests until Pennsylvania's on April 22 – a lifetime in this jam-packed political season – the Democratic presidential candidates will have no victories to crow about or losses to massage.Skip to next paragraph
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But this pause, experts say, may shape up as one of the most important stretches of the race.
In the absence of reality checks, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama are likely to push even harder to mold perceptions of a race that refuses to be pinned down on delegate counts alone. Jockeying for "front-runner" status got under way with a jolt this week with Mrs. Clinton's suggestion that Mr. Obama would make a good running mate, and Obama's riposte: "But I'm in first place right now."
With wins in Wyoming Saturday and Mississippi Tuesday, Obama made up most of the delegate losses from last week's defeats in Ohio, Rhode Island, and Texas. Whether he has regained the upper hand or is simply running in place is a subject each side will try to spin to its advantage over the next 1-1/2 months.
The Clinton campaign notes that she has won most of the big states, whose large electoral college votes will be critical in November. The Obama campaign counters that he has won more states, including likely battlegrounds in the general election, and is ahead in both the popular vote and delegate count.
"These six weeks are one of the most critical periods for the Democrats," says Joseph Aistrup, a political scientist at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan. "The candidates will be floating a lot of trial balloons to see what particular angles work."
The audience is only partly the voters who will award Pennsylvania's 158 delegates.
Perhaps more important, analysts say, are the nearly 800 elected officials and party leaders known as superdelegates who may well tip the race; the ordinary Americans whose poll responses journalists use to gauge shifts in political momentum; and the Democratic leaders who will decide whether and how to proceed with do-overs of the primaries in Michigan and Florida, which had been stripped of their delegates because they moved up their contests in violation of party rules.
Clinton won Michigan and Florida. But Obama didn't appear on the Michigan ballot, and to honor the party sanctions, neither campaigned in the two states.
Those primaries, if replayed in some form, would throw 366 delegates back into play. But it would also raise the threshold to win the nomination from 2,025 to 2,208. According to an Associated Press tally, Obama now has 1,598 delegates and Clinton 1,487, including pledged and superdelegates. Neither candidate is likely to pile up enough pledged delegates – those awarded through voting – in the 10 remaining contests to seal the nomination.