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.
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.
A decision on whether to rerun the Michigan and Florida primaries could come in the next couple of weeks, a move likely to divert a raft of campaign resources to those delegate-rich states.
The chairman of the Democratic Party, Howard Dean, has said he is open to new contests there. But officials in those states have yet to come up with the money for the do-overs, which could cost more than $30 million. A less-expensive alternative now under discussion in both states is a mail-in primary.
In a sign that lobbying from the campaigns was already under way, Clinton's campaign released an open letter Wednesday urging the Obama campaign to "honor the results" in Michigan and Florida or agree to new contests.
Obama and his aides, however, raised concerns this week about the prospect of ballot fraud. "The state of Oregon has mail-in voting, and it took them more than a decade to perfect it," his chief strategist, David Axelrod, told reporters in a conference call. "And now we're going to turn this process over to parties within the states … with a matter of weeks to prepare?"
Obama aides are also downplaying the significance of Pennsylvania, where Clinton is heavily favored. "We'll campaign hard there," his campaign manager, David Plouffe, said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday. "But our campaign won't be defined by Pennsylvania."
Another front over the next month will be the courtship of roughly 338 super delegates who remain uncommitted.
Kalyn Free, a superdelegate and former district attorney from Oklahoma, says she has been "heavily" lobbied by both campaigns but isn't comfortable deciding until a clear front-runner emerges.
"Just when you think one candidate is dead in the water, they rebound," she said in a phone interview. "It complicates my decision in that it's a balancing act: First, what is the general will of the people? Second, what is in the best interest of the Democratic Party? Third, who is going to be the best nominee to run against John McCain?"
The week has seen a sharp escalation in rhetoric as Clinton and Obama try to answer just such questions.
The Obama campaign issued a memo Tuesday challenging Clinton's foreign policy credentials, and then demanded that Clinton denounce comments from one of her fundraisers, former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, who told a California newspaper that Obama owed his political fortunes to being black. (Clinton later told the Associated Press that she disagreed with Ferraro.)
Clinton countered Obama's foreign policy memo with one accusing Obama of a "fundamentally misleading attack."
The closeness of the race has helped draw legions of voters to the polls and stirred activism in states unaccustomed to a role in choosing the nominee. But if the popular voting does not produce a nominee by the convention, analysts say, that could demoralize voters and cripple Democrats in November.
"The potential for one side to feel that the other has stolen the nomination is really strong right now," says Dr. Aistrup of Kansas State. "The result of that in November is that it turns a pretty strong probability of a Democratic victory into a situation where John McCain is very likely to win."