Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Obama sweep of Potomac states pierces Clinton base

Democratic presidential hopeful rolls through Virginia, Maryland and D.C., attracting a greater share of female voters

by: John Ibbitson

Barack Obama steamrolled through the Potomac primaries Tuesday night, adding Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia to his recent sweep of states by eating into the very heart of Senator Hillary Clinton's base of support.

With eight wins over four days, and with two more – Wisconsin and Hawaii – expected to follow next Tuesday, the Illinois senator's momentum would be considered unstoppable, were his opponent anyone other than Ms. Clinton.

The New York senator's campaign organization and deep ties to the Democratic Party establishment once made her victory seem inevitable. Now it is anything but.

Ms. Clinton flew to Texas Tuesday, where she must halt the Obama surge by winning there and in Ohio on Mini Super Tuesday, March 4.

Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain swept the Potomac Primaries, winning in Maryland, Virginia and Washington D.C.

What remains unknown is whether the size and scope of Mr. Obama's recent victories will erode her support among middle- and working-class voters and Latinos.

Exit polls Tuesday night suggest Ms. Clinton is facing exactly that problem. In previous states, the vote was split between African Americans and affluent liberals, who backed Mr. Obama, and Latino and middle- and working-class white voters, especially white women, who backed Ms. Clinton.

But in Virginia and Maryland Tuesday night, exit polls showed that Ms. Clinton's base is melting away, at least in the Chesapeake. The two candidates split the white vote evenly, with Ms. Clinton outpolling Mr. Obama among white women by only nine points, less than half her previously typical lead, according to The Associated Press. Mr. Obama led among white men.

And a Fox News exit poll put seniors, another core Clinton constituency, into Mr. Obama's column, by 53 per cent to 47 per cent. The Fox News poll also had Mr. Obama winning the Latino vote, 55 to 45 per cent. And among African Americans, Mr. Obama took nine votes out of 10.

The polls were reflected in the result. In Virginia, with 101 delegates at stake, Mr. Obama led Ms. Clinton by an emphatic 64 to 36 per cent, with most polls reporting. Early returns in Maryland, where polls were kept open late because of bad weather, showed a similar margin: 60 per cent to 37 per cent.

The District of Columbia, though it has only 37 delegates, was positively embarrassing: 75 per cent to 24 per cent for Mr. Obama over Ms. Clinton.

Because Virginia, Maryland and the capital district apportion their delegates based on proportional representation, Ms. Clinton will not be shut out of this region, but the wide margin of his victory ensures that Mr. Obama will enjoy a considerable advantage in the delegate count. He now leads Ms. Clinton both in popular vote and in delegates, despite Ms. Clinton's large lead among superdelegates – senior party officials who are entitled to vote at the Democratic national convention.

If current trends continue, they too might start reconsidering their pledge of allegiance to the Clinton clan.

As if she needed any more bad news, it was confirmed Tuesday night that Mike Henry, Ms. Clinton's deputy campaign manager, had quit, reinforcing the impression of disarray within Clinton campaign headquarters.

It didn't seem to faze Ms. Clinton, who at a rally in El Paso, Tex., Tuesday night declared that she would spend the next three weeks talking about how she would be “the president that will be required on Day 1, to be commander-in-chief, to turn the economy around.”

“I'm tested, I'm ready. Let's make it happen!” she urged, to lusty cheers.

Two new, competing narratives have emerged in recent days from the Clinton and Obama spin doctors. Ms. Clinton's supporters point out that only she has been able to win the big Democratic states: California; New York; New Jersey; Massachusetts (though Mr. Obama won his home state of Illinois). Mr. Obama, on the other hand, wins big in states that will certainly be taken by the Republicans in the general election: Kansas, Oklahoma, Alaska and the like.

But that is exactly why Democrats should support Mr. Obama, his side responds. California and New York will go Democratic regardless of who is the nominee, they say.

Mr. Obama, they argue, with his message of hope and reconciliation, can take the so-called purple states, such as Florida, Arizona, Ohio and Virginia, that the Democrats need to win (or win back) from the Republicans in order to take the White House.

Expect these narratives to rise in volume during the coming weeks as Mr. Obama seeks to wrest Ohio or Texas from Ms. Clinton's grasp, and she seeks to prevail in them as proof that she is the closer in the states that count.

On the Republican side, Arizona Senator John McCain continues to be plagued by the populist guerrilla campaign of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who threw a scare into the McCain campaign by polling strongly in rural Virginia. In the end, Mr. McCain took Virginia, Maryland and D.C. and remains the presumptive Republican nominee. If Mr. Huckabee won every single remaining state, he would still not be able to erase Mr. McCain's lead.

But the former Baptist minister's popularity is a painful reminder that the conservative base of the Republican Party is far from reconciled to having Mr. McCain – with his liberal stands on immigration, the environment and campaign-finance reform – as their leader.

To add to the Republicans' woes, turnout in their primaries last night was half that of the Democrats' in Virginia and less than a third in Maryland.

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