Obama wins 9th straight in Wisconsin

THE ROAD TO THE WHITE HOUSE

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Wisconsin gave Sen. Barack Obama his ninth straight win over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton last night, and his native Hawaii was expected to make it 10 in a row before the sun set in the Pacific.

"Houston, I think we've achieved liftoff," Mr. Obama told a cheering crowd of thousands in an arena in Texas, one of the two big states where he will next face Mrs. Clinton as she attempts to right her reeling campaign.

On the Republican ballot in Wisconsin, Sen. John McCain easily defeated former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee while closing in on the majority needed for nomination. Mr. McCain also won the primary in Washington state where half the state's 19 delegates were at stake.

"Thank you, Wisconsin, for bringing us to the point when even a superstitious naval aviator can claim with confidence and humility that I will be our party's nominee for president," Mr. McCain said in Columbus, the capital of the other delegate-rich state that will vote with Texas on March 4.

Mr. Obama's comfortable Wisconsin margin added to a slender but growing delegate advantage and the momentum his campaign has built with win after win over the last three weeks. Not only did he capture a substantial industrial state easily, but he made crucial inroads into demographic groups that had been strengths for his opponent in previous contests.

An exit survey conducted for the television networks and the Associated Press found that the Illinois senator had battled Mrs. Clinton to a draw among women and union members, two groups that have been foundations to her campaign.

Mrs. Clinton waited for the results in Youngstown, Ohio. Rather than giving a traditional concession speech, she greeted the returns with sharp-edged remarks that attempted to re-frame the race as choice between the Wisconsin winner's rhetoric and her experience.

"Both Sen. Obama and I would make history, only one of us is ready on Day One to be commander in chief, ready to manage our economy, and ready to defeat the Republicans," she said in a packed high school gym.

"One of us is ready to be commander in chief in a dangerous world. ... One of us has a plan to provide health care for every single American -- no one left out. ...Finally, one of us has faced serious Republican opposition in the past. And one of us is ready to do it again."

Mr. Obama didn't let her have too much time on national TV to make her renewed pitch to voters. While she was still speaking in the Youngstown gym, he took the stage of the Toyota Arena in Houston, prompting the three cable news networks that had been broadcasting her remarks to switch to the winner while she was still speaking.

"The change that we seek is still months and miles away and we need the good people of Texas to help us get there," Mr. Obama said.

The Illinois senator's speech featured an implicit rebuttal to Mrs. Clinton's attempt to devalue the importance of eloquence. Describing Washington as "a place where good ideas go to die," he said that the problem is not that the nation lacks good ideas, "the problem is that we haven't had leaders to inspire Americans to rally behind a common purpose."

In his victory speech in Columbus, Mr. McCain joined the long-distance argument on the value of words, while leaving little doubt over which Democrat he expected to face in November.

"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," he said.

Mr. Obama said he welcomed a face-off against the Arizona senator.

While calling the Navy veteran and former prisoner-of-war "an American hero," he said, "He represents the policies of yesterday and we want to be the party of tomorrow. I'm looking forward to having that debate with John McCain."

The Wisconsin exit poll suggested that Mr. Obama had won among voters of every age group except those 65 and older. He essentially tied Mrs. Clinton among white women, and won overwhelmingly among white men, 59 percent to 38 percent. Only about 12 percent of Wisconsin's Democratic voters were minorities, so the polling samples among those groups were too small to produce meaningful results.

But that lack of minority participation would be another argument for the political value to Mr. Obama's win. Clinton supporters had sought to explain away some of Mr. Obama's previous victories, in states such as Maryland, Virginia and Louisiana by pointing to their substantial minority populations and noting those voters' special affinity for a candidate who would be the first African-American nominee of a major party.

As in earlier states including Iowa and Nebraska, Mr. Obama's win yesterday came in a state with an overwhelmingly white electorate. The exit survey found that he won among white voters overall by a margin of 53 percent to 46 percent, close to his margin among all voters, which, with about half of the vote counted, was 56 percent to 43 percent.

Lofty rhetoric was not the only element of Mr. Obama's victory speech. He opened it with the prosaic details of voting procedures, noting that Texas, like Ohio, allows early voting, meaning that the balloting in both of those vital battlegrounds begins today. The next two weeks will be a defining battle of the long Democratic campaign. If Mrs. Clinton cannot, as her campaign predicts, win both of those, along with Pennsylvania, which votes on April 22, it is difficult to see how her campaign could survive.


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


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