Senator Obama of Illinois also won the Hawaii caucuses, making him undefeated in the last 10 Democratic presidential primaries and caucuses. Obama's 76 percent of votes to Clinton's 24 percent was not surprising in his native state. But though Obama's victory in Wisconsin was also expected, his unexpectedly large margin of victory there signals serious trouble for Senator Clinton. As with the three "Potomac primaries" last week, Obama achieved that feat by cutting into Clinton's historic base of support: women and low-income voters.
Now the campaign shifts to the four March 4 primaries, which are dominated by the delegate-rich states of Ohio and Texas. There, Clinton faces the ultimate question: What can she do to change the trajectory of the nomination race?
"She certainly faces an Alamo moment in Texas and Ohio," says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "This was a significant win for Obama, because it was 17 points and he cut into her base. If that continues in Ohio and Texas, she will be done."
Even if Clinton wins Ohio and Texas by slim margins, that may not be enough for her to catch Obama. As of early Wednesday, he led the delegate count 1,336 to 1,251, out of the 2,025 needed to win the nomination, according to the Associated Press. Because the Democrats allocate delegates proportionally, she needs big victory margins to gain ground and overtake him.
Still, just to win a state, even by a few points, would be a huge boost to Clinton's campaign. "Winning is becoming psychologically important," says John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron, in Ohio. "If she wins 51 percent [in Texas and Ohio], her team will feel better – though it won't change the delegate count much."
As of Wednesday, Clinton had an average lead of 14.7 percentage points in Ohio in recent polls, according to RealClearPolitics.com. In Texas, her average lead was 7.6 percentage points. Recent history has shown that Obama can erase or at least substantially reduce a Clinton lead in the polls by campaigning intensively, both in person and via advertising. His flush coffers have made it possible for him to organize and advertise extensively, though he has found the large states tougher going. On Feb. 5, Super Tuesday, Clinton won California, New York, and New Jersey while Obama racked up delegates in smaller states.
Some treat Obama as nominee
But never in this campaign has Obama enjoyed so much momentum. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumed Republican nominee, treated Obama as his likely November opponent when he spoke after winning the Wisconsin primary.
Though Senator McCain did not refer to Obama by name, it was clear that's who he had in mind: "I will fight every moment of every day in this campaign to make sure Americans are not deceived by an eloquent but empty call for change that promises no more than a holiday from history and a return to the false promises and failed policies of a tired philosophy that trusts in government more than people."
In his own victory speech, Obama also set his sights on McCain more than on Clinton, referring to the Arizona senator and former Vietnam War prisoner by name. "He is a genuine American hero," Obama said to a crowd in Houston. "But when he embraces George Bush's failed economic policies, when he says that he is willing to send our troops into another 100 years of war in Iraq, then he represents the policies of yesterday."
Clinton and her campaign have lashed out at Obama daily, calling attention, for example, to his use of language echoing that of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D), a friend of Obama's. The Clinton campaign calls it plagiarism, but Obama says it was language that Governor Patrick himself had suggested he use. Obama later said he should have credited Patrick for the original statements, which, ironically, centered on the importance of words in a campaign. Clinton, like McCain, has sought to belittle Obama's soaring rhetoric as just pretty language and not an indication of what Obama could actually accomplish.
The Clinton campaign expects the two debates between now and March 4 – one on Thursday in Austin, Texas, and another next Tuesday in Cleveland – to highlight her command of issues and stress her campaign's point that she is the candidate of experience.
But whether the debates could be a game-changer is another matter. Obama has seldom slipped in any of the previous debates and cannot be counted on to make mistakes in the next two. Clinton has to decide how negative she wants to be against Obama – a tactic she has no choice but to follow, analysts say. If she stays positive, she will look as if she's giving up. The danger is that if she is seen as too harsh, she may only drive up her negatives.
Obama inroads among most groups
In addition to Obama's 58 percent to 41 percent victory, exit polls out of Wisconsin also paint an alarming picture for Clinton. Obama won almost every demographic group, beating her soundly among men and tying her 50-50 among women. Obama won every income category, every level of education, every region of the state, and every ideological group. A few groups chose Clinton, including voters over age 65, Roman Catholics who attend church weekly, and those who rated "experience" as the top candidate quality. Clinton won that last group 95 percent to 5 percent. But only 22 percent of Democratic voters chose experience as paramount.
"Can bring change" was the most sought-after quality, and Obama won that category with 77 percent, according to the Wisconsin exit polls. Obama was also deemed more qualified than Clinton to be commander in chief, 51 percent to 47 percent, a sign that he's looking more presidential to voters every day.