Obama, Clinton duel over delegate strengths
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Riding the crest of eight straight victories, the campaign strategists for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama claim that even if their rival were to win all three of the big-state contests she is betting her campaign on, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton still would have no realistic chance of reversing the Obama lead among pledged convention delegates.
David Plouffe, Mr. Obama's campaign manager, told reporters yesterday that Tuesday's primaries in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia had produced a net gain of 50 delegates for his man, resulting in an overall pledged delegate lead of 136. Citing Democratic Party rules that make it difficult to achieve big net gains in the coveted national convention votes, he said, "We believe it's next to impossible for Sen. Clinton to close that."
The Associated Press delegate count has Mr. Obama with 1,223, and Mrs. Clinton at 1,198. While both are short of the 2,025 needed for nomination, the aftermath of the contests Tuesday was the first time that Mr. Obama had overtaken Mrs. Clinton, whose total has been boosted by her greater strength with the Democrats' so-called superdelegates.
"We believe that the last five days will be seen as a decisive period for us," Mr. Plouffe said of the run of victories Saturday and Tuesday that brought the overall delegate lead to Mr. Obama for the first time.
Clinton campaign officials did not directly dispute the Obama arithmetic, but insisted that they would wake on March 5 essentially tied in the overall delegate race -- including pledged delegates and superdelegates, the party and elected officials automatically seated at the convention.
Mrs. Clinton, who will be campaigning in Ohio today, is counting on its support and that of Texas, both of which vote March 4, as well as Pennsylvania, which votes April 22, to reverse the momentum her rival's winning streak has built since their virtual tie in the Super Tuesday contests Feb. 5.
"We expect we will be in a virtual tie with Sen. Obama for delegates -- within 25 -- after March 4," said Guy Cecil, Mrs. Clinton's political director, in a conference call with reporters.
But Mr. Plouffe argued that the complex rules that mete out delegates in proportion to popular votes make it all but impossible for either candidate to make big gains among delegates unless they can win states by landslide margins. Mrs. Clinton, he said, would have to win each of the looming big states in "blowouts" -- outpolling Mr. Obama by 25- or 30-point margins -- to have any chance of catching up to him in the pledged-delegate column.
While precise delegate counts differ, the gross accuracy of the Obama analysis was reflected in the way officials from the two Democratic campaigns discussed their expectations for the role of the superdelegates, who will cast roughly 20 percent of the votes at the Denver convention in late August.
"We have always believed that the pledged-delegate leader will be the nominee of the party," said Mr. Plouffe. "At the end of the day, I think it's much more likely that the superdelegates will ratify that outcome."
But in their portion of the dueling conference calls focusing on the delegate projections yesterday, Clinton strategists emphasized the independent role of the party elders. "Neither campaign is in a position to win this nomination without the support of superdelegates," said Howard Wolfson, Mrs. Clinton's press secretary. "No one is going to get to 2,025 [the number needed for nomination] without the superdelegates."
The strategists for the New York senator said all three of the upcoming big states were fertile territory for Mrs. Clinton. Scattered polling in those states in recent months has shown Mrs. Clinton with substantial leads in all three, but the Obama campaign argues that the now-more-relaxed pace of the campaign schedule would allow their candidate time to make his case to their voters.
The Texas rules, moreover -- complex even by the arcane standards of other Democratic contests -- award almost half of that state's delegates in 31 state Senate district caucuses held concurrently with the primary vote. In states earlier in the campaign calendar, caucuses have been a particular strength of the well-organized Obama forces.
The Clinton advisers also continued their effort to alter the delegate calculus by arguing that the votes of Florida and Michigan should be counted in choosing the Democrats' nominee. All of the major candidates agreed not to campaign in those states after the Democratic National Committee stripped them of their delegates for violating the rules of the party's nominating calendar.
Mrs. Clinton was the only candidate with a slate of delegates in Michigan, and she won Florida easily. While Florida Democrats turned out in record numbers, the Obama camp discounts the win because none of the candidates engaged in a campaign there, and no delegates were at stake.
There have been suggestions that the two penalized states could have their delegates restored by mounting caucus contests sometime this spring, but the Clinton campaign continues to argue for the disallowed primaries.
Anthony Corrado, a Colby College professor of government and an expert on the complex delegate rules, agreed that Mrs. Clinton faces a tough delegate challenge. "Once you start getting a delegate lead like Obama has gotten, it become very difficult to overcome," he said.
Mr. Corrado suggested that next week's contests in Wisconsin and Hawaii are likely to bring the Illinois senator's margin as high as 150 delegates. "When you look at the probability that they can add another 10 or 20 delegates [Tuesday], you really see the problem she faces," he said. "It's very difficult to claw one's way back. ...
"To make up 150 delegates at this point, just because there are so few left, it's going to be very tough even if she wins all three," he said, referring to Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania.
Mr. Corrado noted that, by running the big-state table, Mrs. Clinton might strengthen her case for the support of superdelegates, but he said the prospect of that group's resolving the nomination represents uncharted political territory.
In 1984, the votes of superdelegates were needed to top off the majority that nominated former Vice President Walter Mondale in San Francisco. "But that was a case where Mondale had a commanding delegate lead over [former Colorado Sen. Gary] Hart and [the Rev. Jesse] Jackson, so Mondale was already pretty far ahead," Mr. Corrado said.
"In this race, what you have is a debate going on about the role of the superdelegates that you haven't seen in the past. That may be the reason you haven't seen much movement in the superdelegates."
The potential procedural disputes over the delegates carry risks for both candidates hoping to leave Denver at the head of a united party. Obama partisans and Democratic National Committee officials maintain that to seat the Florida and Michigan delegates would be an unfair exercise in changing rules that all candidates had abided by.
But the Clinton campaign cloaks its self-interest in seating them in the argument that to continue to penalize them would disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters who may be crucial to a Democratic victory in November.
And the prospect of superdelegates overturning the majority sentiment of the elected, pledged delegates raises the specter of party bossism, which would be almost certain to engender bitterness among the partisans of the losing candidate.
First Published February 14, 2008 12:00 am