Campaign 2008: Clinton, Obama work to win N.Y. delegates, one by one
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POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. -- Deep in the heart of "Hillary" territory, two dozen supporters of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama huddled in the back of a dimly lit cafe last week, plotting strategy for Super Tuesday.
"There are some people who think this is Hillary's state," Pat Kelly, a bearded, 19-year-old student at Bard College, told the group. "We need people to know this is a nationwide movement."
Margaret White, a 60-something from Poughkeepsie, cut in.
"Don't let your friends tell you, 'Oh, she's going to win.' He doesn't have to win New York to win delegates."
The race for the Democratic presidential nomination has evolved into a district-by-district competition for delegates, not headline-grabbing, statewide victories. Even if a candidate loses badly, he or she can still drive up the delegate count. New York, with 232 delegates to be won on Tuesday, is the second biggest prize in the nation.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign isn't taking anything for granted, even in her home state. It launched an advertising run here last week and has enlisted thousands of volunteers for phone-banking and get-out-the vote operations.
"We need the manpower and womanpower to get on those phones and call as many New Yorkers as possible," Joseph Ruggiero, chairman of the Dutchess County Democratic Committee, told Clinton supporters at a union hall on Thursday night. "It's critical. We've got a lot of competition out there. Hillary is not taking Obama lightly."
As the hometown senator, Mrs. Clinton can count on deep local support. She has an immediate edge among the state's 45 unpledged, "superdelegates," which include all 25 Democratic members of Congress (and Mrs. Clinton herself) .
Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, is also a superdelegate because of his status as a "distinguished party leader."
But Obama backers still see New York as fertile ground. Two weeks ago, about 140 people turned out for the opening of the campaign's office in Poughkeepsie, a rusty, former manufacturing town on the Hudson River about 70 miles north of New York City
City residents have migrated here in recent years, searching for cheaper home prices and a quieter way of life. That has brought a more diverse population to Dutchess County, where registered Republicans are in the majority but Democrats are steadily closing the gap.
They're also part of a demographic that is moving toward Mr. Obama.
"Barack's not alone any more," said Curtis Simpson, 31, who moved to Poughkeepsie from Harlem to work and study at the local community college. "Hillary and Bill were tag-teaming him. That's over."
Mr. Simpson was standing in the back of the Muddy Cup Cafe, a trendy meeting spot for local artists that opened last year. Of the more than 20 people listening to him talk, about a third were black and a quarter were students. There were also several older supporters.
"I loved Bill Clinton. I voted for him," said Myrtle Defairia, 49, a Trinidadian who lived in Manhattan for 20 years and now works as the tax records clerk for the city of Poughkeepsie.
But she's eager to back Mr. Obama over the former president's wife.
"I think that he's not divisive," she said. "When he says something, I believe what he says."
The group laid out a plan for the final days before the state primary: round-the-clock staffing at the local headquarters, door-to-door canvassing for voters, phone banking, and "visibility" events, including a Thursday press conference in front of the Dutchess County Office Building and a "Walk for Obama" event today.
The three congressional districts that converge on Dutchess County will each award five delegates. A candidate who wins more than 15 percent of the vote can capture a proportional share of the delegates.
(In New York's Republican primary, the winner will get all of the delegates, giving an edge to Arizona Sen. John McCain, who is ahead in the polls and has the support of state GOP leaders.)
"It's about delegates, and we expect to do well across the board," said Richard Fife, a spokesman for the Obama campaign in New York. "We're going to surprise a lot of people."
Last week, the campaign launched an advertising run in the state -- the most expensive media market in the country. The cost was about $750,000, according to adage.com.
Mr. Obama has about a dozen offices here. His campaign boasts of several thousand active volunteers.
Not surprisingly, Mrs. Clinton also has many enthusiastic New York supporters, including institutional backing from traditional Democratic allies.
Nearly 40 local leaders with the Civil Service Employees Union, which has 85,000 members in the Hudson Valley, gathered on Thursday night at their regional headquarters to watch the latest Democratic debate. They handed out T-shirts and promised to call voters across the state.
"I think Hillary has a lot of knowledge from her days in the White House, and I think it's time for a woman," supporter Debbie Downey said. "I think Obama is a good candidate -- but maybe next time out. He needs more experience."
When Mrs. Clinton moved to the state more than eight years ago to pursue an open Senate seat, some New Yorkers expressed skepticism about sending the former first lady to Congress. She won handily in heavily Democratic New York City, but she trailed in most upstate counties. Six years later, Mrs. Clinton won 67 percent of the vote statewide, including more than 58 percent in Dutchess County.
"When I took office, there was a lot of work ahead of me," said Nancy Cozean, a Democrat who stepped down as Poughkeepsie's mayor last year. "She was at my side."
The freshman senator helped find federal funds for several projects in the city, such as a transportation hub and waterfront redevelopment.
Mrs. Clinton also received high marks for securing billions of dollars in aid to help the state recover from the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
A statewide poll released by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion on Jan. 21 showed Mrs. Clinton leading Mr. Obama, 48 to 32 percent. That gap narrows in New York City.
Her record on some issues, especially Iraq, troubles more liberal Democrats and could provide an opening for Mr. Obama in his quest for delegates.
"Do I wish she had voted against the war? Yes," said U.S. Rep. John Hall, who defeated a Republican incumbent in 2006, partly by stressing his anti-war stance. (He's also the former singer for the band Orleans, which had the hit song "Still the One.")
He's still backing Mrs. Clinton, who, he acknowledges, helped raise money for his 2006 run and brought out crowds along the campaign trail. (All 23 Democratic House members from the state have endorsed Mrs. Clinton.)
"We have a particularly strong field," Mr. Hall said. "Sen. Clinton is clearly the most qualified."
At the local level, a handful of elected officials are lining up behind Mr. Obama. A third of the Democrats on the Dutchess County Legislature have voiced support, including the body's chairman.
They joined about 100 people in Downtown Poughkeepsie on Thursday night to wave signs at passing motorists.
"I like Hillary. But I love Obama," said Joel Tyner, a county legislator. "He was speaking out against the war when it wasn't a popular thing to do."
First Published February 3, 2008 12:00 am