The Democratic presidential race has suddenly become competitive. Again.
Hillary Clinton's victories in the Ohio, Texas, and Rhode Island primaries Tuesday gave her campaign new life just when many pundits and Democratic leaders were questioning her viability. Up to this week, she had lost 11 contests in a row to rival Barack Obama. Now it is Obama who is on the defensive as Clinton continues to raise questions about his toughness, his experience, and his ability to close the deal with voters.
The next phase of the nomination battle is likely to be a nasty, protracted struggle that could leave Democrats divided and demoralized for the general election fight against Republican John McCain.
Despite her victories, Clinton remains behind Obama in accumulating delegates because she was unable to win decisively enough to overcome his earlier lead, estimated at about 100 delegates. The Democrats allocate their delegates proportionally, according to popular support in the primaries and caucuses, and Obama did well enough Tuesday in his losing effort--and in winning Vermont--to maintain his lead. He also was expected to surpass Clinton in separate delegate-selection caucuses in Texas, although those results were not immediately known. Neither candidate is close to the 2,025 delegates needed to win the nomination, and it's possible that neither will have a majority before the Democratic National Convention in August.
Now the campaign moves on to Wyoming and Mississippi, two states where Obama should do well, and reaches the next big showdown in Pennsylvania April 22. Each contest will be important, as will the support of about 800 superdelegates--elected officials, party leaders, and activists who aren't bound by the results of the primaries and caucuses. These delegates had been gradually siding with Obama as he ran up his string of victories, but now many will wait for the outcome of the next round of states before they commit.
Meanwhile, it's Clinton's turn to celebrate. "For everyone here in Ohio and across America who's ever been counted out but refused to be knocked out, for everyone who has stumbled but stood right back up, and for everyone who works hard and never gives up, this one is for you," Clinton said at a rally in Columbus.
For his part, Obama told supporters in Texas: "We know this: No matter what happens tonight, we have nearly the same delegate lead as we had this morning and we are on our way to winning this nomination."
Each candidate did well with core constituencies. Clinton won Hispanics and older voters. Obama led among young people and African-Americans.
What appeared to move voters in the final days were Clinton's television ads questioning Obama's ability to deal with a crisis; her criticism of his association with Tony Rezko, an indicted businessman from Chicago; and her claims that Obama wasn't being candid about his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is very unpopular in Ohio. Clinton also made some last-minute appearances on Saturday Night Live and Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, which showed her sense of humor and received widespread, and favorable, coverage in the media.
By Kenneth T. Walsh