Potomac primaries: Obama holds momentum

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

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Last-minute campaigning: Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke Monday in Washington at the National Council of Negro Women Building. Residents of the nation’s capital vote in a presidential primary Tuesday, along with Marylanders and Virginians.
Jim Young/Reuters
Presidential candidate Sen. John McCain ( R ) of Arizona arrived to a news conference in Annapolis, Md on Feb. 11.

Barack Obama's sweep of five caucuses last weekend, all by wide margins, hands the Illinois senator clear momentum heading into Tuesday's Potomac primary contests.

And there may be no relief in sight for his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Rodham Clinton, until March 4, Super Tuesday Junior. Then, the two face off in two big-delegate states – Texas and Ohio – plus Vermont and Rhode Island.

Senator Obama is expected to win Feb. 12 in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, where the demographics work to his advantage – large black populations and sizable pockets of white-collar voters. The Clinton camp is playing down its chances there, as well as in the Feb. 19 contests in Wisconsin and Hawaii.

Aside from Texas and Ohio, where Senator Clinton is strong with the big Hispanic and blue-collar populations, the last fire wall in her "big state" strategy is Pennsylvania, which votes April 22. The question, though, is how momentum-proof her campaign is.

"You get a roll going and all of a sudden those sure-bet states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Texas don't become sure bets anymore," says Brad Coker, managing partner of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research. "And all [Obama] has to do is breach the wall in one of them, and the flood tide will come roaring through."

The distress in Clinton's campaign is evident. On Sunday, her campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, a longtime aide, stepped down and was replaced by Maggie Williams, a former top aide to Clinton from her days as first lady. Ms. Williams joined the campaign as an adviser after Clinton lost the Iowa caucuses, and she is credited with helping the senator add a more inspiring tone to her speeches.

After Obama's weekend victories in Washington, Louisiana, Nebraska, Maine, and the US Virgin Islands, the delegate contest between him and Clinton has grown even tighter.

Each is a little over halfway to the 2,025 delegates needed for the nomination, with Clinton at 1,148 and Obama at 1,121, according to CNN. Obama leads among "pledged delegates" – those earned in primaries and caucuses – while Clinton leads among "superdelegates," party leaders and elected officials who can back whomever they want. Behind the scenes, the campaigns are wooing superdelegates as assiduously as they are fighting for voters.

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.

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.

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