Clinton wins big in West Virginia

Victory won't be enough to slow Obama's momentum

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton clobbered Sen. Barack Obama in the West Virginia primary last night, but the show of strength may have done little to brake her rival's momentum toward the Democratic presidential nomination.

At once defiant and conciliatory, Mrs. Clinton basked in a victory that was overwhelming in its numbers.

"We know from the Bible that faith can move mountains, and, my friends, the faith of Mountain State has moved me," she proclaimed. "I am more determined than ever to carry on this campaign until everyone has had a chance to make their voices heard."

In a long campaign whose edges have become rougher over time, the New York senator praised her rival but was adamant that she was the better candidate for her party.

"Yes, we've had a few dustups along the way," she acknowledged, "But our commitment to bringing America new leadership ... means that we have always stood together on what is most important."

In an implicit appeal to the superdelegates who, at least in theory, could vault her ahead of the front-runner, she said, "The choice falls to all of you, and I don't envy you. I deeply admire Sen. Obama but I believe our case, a case West Virginia has helped us to make, is stronger."

Television networks called the race for the New York senator moments after the polls closed at 7:30 p.m. on the strength of exit polls that showed her outdistancing the front-runner by a two-to-one margin. As they did, her partisans' chants of, "It's not over," rang through her election night headquarters in the Charleston Civic Center.

One of those in crowd waved a sign that read, "Until the last dog dies."

As Mrs. Clinton waited for the results, Mr. Obama moved on, physically and symbolically. He spent Election Day traveling not to one of the remaining primary states but to Missouri, a November battleground.

In what has become a campaign routine, his staff day showcased the support of another handful of superdelegates, further swelling the support that had allowed him to take the lead in that category as well as in the elected, pledged delegates.

In a conference call with reporters, one of the Illinois senator's newly declared supporters, former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, said the campaign had moved on.

"The math is controlling," said Mr. Romer, who is also a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "This race, I believe, is over."

Neither Mrs. Clinton nor the partisans cheering her in the Civic Center were ready to make that concession.

"I really believe she can," said Ralph Casto, a machinist from Sissonville who said he "absolutely hoped that she would stay in the race right through the convention."

Mr. Casto said, however, that he would support Mr. Obama if he carried the Democratic banner, and he contended that he would have a real chance of carrying the state in the fall, a goal that eluded the Democratic nominees in the last two elections.

"This is a working-class, middle-class state, and I think the feeling is that the economy is the issue this time," he said. "I think people aren't going to be talking about the moral issues, about guns. I think people see past that now."

Not every Clinton supporter was ready to contemplate such unity.

Melissa Payton, a volunteer from Kenova, in Wayne County, along the state's western border, said that if Mr. Obama were the Democratic nominee, she would vote for Mr. McCain.

"I just do not trust him, what with his connections and the things that have come up about him," she said of her party's front-runner. "And I wonder about more things coming out, about the things we don't know. Maybe after he has more experience."

Demography was again political destiny in the Mountain State contest.

The exit poll conducted for the Associated Press and the television networks showed an electorate that closely followed the template of constituencies that had supported the New York senator in earlier contests.

As anticipated, yesterday's voters were relatively older, overwhelmingly white, and less affluent. Consistent with their show of overall support for the former first lady, nearly four out of five voters said they believed that Mrs. Clinton should stay in the race while only 17 percent told the interviewers that she should drop out.

While the results seemed unlikely to slow Mr. Obama's political progress in the short term, they again demonstrated potential challenges for him the general election. Just over half of the voters, for example, said that they believed Mr. Obama was at least "somewhat influenced" by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Asked about Mr. Obama's chances in the fall in a state carried twice by former President Bill Clinton and twice by President Bush, Gov. Joe Manchin, an uncommitted superdelegate, said he expected him to do better as he became better known.

"In states such as West Virginia, people want to see you," he said in a brief interview shortly after the polls closed. In the primary, he said, Mrs. Clinton had a major advantage in that she was better known and the beneficiary of positive memories of her husband's administration.

Through the last week, Mrs. Clinton demonstrated she wasn't content to rest on the huge leads conferred on her by pre-election surveys.

While Mr. Obama made only one appearance in the state, she and her husband campaigned relentlessly.

Despite Mr. Obama's brief fly-by, his campaign was heavily invested in the state, with more offices, and a significantly greater advertising presence. The Clinton campaign emphasized that expense in an election-day memo rebutting efforts by the Obama campaign to dismiss the significance of the drubbing.

A strong Clinton victory, her campaign said, "would send a strong message that Democrats remain excited and energized by Hillary's candidacy."

"In the face of grim poll numbers, the Obama campaign has attempted to dismiss today's outcome despite the fact that Sen. Obama has outspent us on advertising, has more staff in the state, and more than double the number of offices."

As a result of her win, Mrs. Clinton added at least 16 delegates to her total, and Mr. Obama at least seven, with five still to be awarded, according to an analysis of election returns by The Associated Press.

Mr. Obama leads the overall race for the nomination with 1,882.5 delegates, including endorsements from superdelegates. Mrs. Clinton has 1,713, according to the latest AP tally.

The number of delegates needed to clinch the nomination increased by one yesterday, to 2,026, with the election of Democrat Travis Childers to fill a vacant U.S. House seat in Mississippi. That increases the number of superdelegates to 797 and the overall number of delegates to 4,050.

Mrs. Clinton expects another big night next week in Kentucky, while Mr. Obama is favored the same day in Oregon. Puerto Rico is considered Clinton country, but the other closing primaries, South Dakota and Montana, are considered friendlier territory for Mr. Obama.

To propel her underdog campaign through those contests, however, Mrs. Clinton needs money. Early in her victory speech, a candidate who has already loaned he campaign more than $11 million renewed her financial as well has her political appeal, directing supporters to her Web site.

Warming up the crowd for his candidate, campaign adviser Terry McAuliffe said, "People say, "Why doesn't she get out?' You know why? Because Hillary Clinton keeps winning."

"Thank-you West Virginia," a beaming Mrs. Clinton said. "Like the song says, it's almost heaven."


Post-Gazette politics editor James O'Toole can be reached at jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.


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