The contrasting game plans underscore the fundamental shift in the presidential campaign following Obama’s decisive victory Tuesday in North Carolina and narrow loss in Indiana.
Obama has accumulated a lead in pledged delegates that is all but insurmountable – a point that Clinton campaign officials acknowledged Wednesday in a conference call with reporters. That pushes the campaign largely into political backrooms, as both candidates made plans to meet privately Wednesday and Thursday with uncommitted superdelegates in Washington.
On the campaign trail, Obama is expected to continue pressing the message of party unity that he rolled out Tuesday in Raleigh, N.C., while increasingly turning his attention to presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain and gearing his travel schedule toward general election states.
Aides to Obama, who spent Wednesday in Chicago with his family, said the Illinois senator would campaign in the remaining primary states and Puerto Rico. He heads to Oregon, which votes May 20, on Friday for a two-day trip and travels Monday to West Virginia, which votes May 13.
But before the results in Indiana results were even confirmed Tuesday night, chief strategist David Axelrod told reporters traveling on the campaign plane from Raleigh to Chicago that Obama had “multiple tasks.”
“Senator McCain has basically run free for some time now because we have been consumed with this,” Axelrod said. “Everybody is eager to get on with this. We are not going to take anything for granted. But we are also going to spend time addressing broader issues. I mean, I don’t think we are going to spend our time solely in primary states.”
When asked whether Obama would campaign over the next month in general election states, Axelrod said: “I guess you can infer that from what I said.”
Campaign manager David Plouffe was less direct Wednesday on this point.
“We have to continue to fight as hard as we can to secure this nomination and that's our first, second and third goal,” Plouffe said. “Obviously, you know, we also don't want to wake up the morning of June 4th or June 10th or whenever this is gonna end and not be prepared so we're gonna do the things we can in kind of our off hours to be ready.”
Obama aides and supporters, on a conference call, declined to nudge Clinton out of the race, going out of their way to show deference to the New York senator.
“It would be inappropriate and awkward and wrong for any of us to tell Senator Clinton when it is time for the race to be over,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). “This is her decision and it is only her decision. We are confident that she is going to do the right thing for the Democratic nominee. We are confident that she will help, work hard to unite our party.”
Clinton’s campaign set out Wednesday with a diminished goal: To show that she’s alive.
With a deliberately cheery conference call and a single campaign stop, the candidate and her staff gave no public indication that Tuesday’s election would derail her campaign. She did, however, unilaterally disarm, dropping a key aspect of her underdog’s campaign: Sharp attacks on the frontrunner.
Clinton did not mention Obama during her visit to Shepherdstown, W.Va. – a late addition to her schedule, located just 80 miles from Washington, D.C.
While she delivered a familiar message focused on the bread-and-butter economic frustrations of working voters, she dropped the central contrasts that had driven her stump speech in the closing days of the Indiana and North Carolina primaries: Attacks on Obama’sposition on home foreclosures, healthcare, and the gas tax holiday, and the accompanying implication that he is “out of touch” with their views.
“Next Tuesday, I hope you will give me a chance to be your president,” she said.
She based her case not on contrasts of policy or character, but on the contours of her coalition of working class whites, women, and Hispanics—crucial swing voters in the general election.
“The base I've put together in this primary is a stronger place to start from,” she told reporters in Shepherdstown.
Clinton’s aides, too, drew no contrasts on matters of issue or character with Obama in a morning conference call with reporters.
Instead, they gave an unusually explicit nod to the racial calculus of electability.
“We lost the white electorate in Virginia, started even in North Carolina among the white electorate just two weeks ago, and ended [with] a very significant win of 24 points among those voters,” said Geoff Garin, Clinton’s chief strategist, acknowledging that among black voters, Clinton “did not do as well as we would want or need.”
Clinton’s campaign touted the endorsement of one superdelegate, North Carolina Heath Shuler, who kept a pledge to follow the voters of her North Carolina district. But Obama received four superdelegate endorsements, including one who switched from Clinton, Jennifer McClellan of Virginia.
Clinton also heard lukewarm words from key Senate supporters.
“I, as you know, have great fondness and great respect for Sen. Clinton and I’m very loyal to her,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, (D-Calif.). “Having said that, I’d like to talk with her and hear her view on the rest of the race and what the strategy is.”
Clinton’s New York colleague Sen. Charles Schumer declined to offer a vote of confidence when asked if Clinton should stay in the race.
“It's her decision to make and I'll accept what decision she makes,” he said.