Whether the subject is Florida or Super Tuesday, Barack Obama's campaign appears to be shifting its focus from winning contests to winning delegates, as illustrated by campaign manager David Plouffe's conference call on Tuesday.
The call started out with a special guest appearance from 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry, who endorsed the Illinois senator in early January.
Kerry was there to urge the reporters on the call to not treat today's Democratic primary in Florida as a significant contest. Both Obama and Hillary Clinton are on the ballot, but because the state's primary date is too early according to Democratic National Committee rules, the committee has stripped the state of all its delegates.
"Speaking as someone who's been through this process and recently won the Democratic nomination, I can tell you that what this race is about right now is delegates," Kerry said. "The bottom line is Florida does not offer any delegates. It is not a legitimate race. It should not become a spin race. It should not become a fabricated race."
Fresh off her stinging loss to Obama in South Carolina, Clinton has been playing up the Florida contest lately. Though she hasn't campaigned there, she is holding an event there set to kick off once the first polls in the state close. She is expected to win by a convincing margin with more votes than have been seen in any contest so far – turnout among Democrats is still expected to be high because of a controversial property tax measure on today's ballot.
Clinton has expressed support for seating delegates from Florida and Michigan at this summer's Democratic National Convention, though her campaign canceled a conference call scheduled for today on the topic.
Plouffe, who took over the rest of the call after Kerry got his word in, wouldn't make such a commitment – if the fight for the nomination went to the convention and delegates from both states were seated, it's possible the DNC could use the results of the primaries to determine how many delegates each candidate gets. That approach could hand the nomination to Clinton.
"That's a long way down the road," Plouffe said. "Obviously, this could end up being a very close delegate race where we're fighting for each and every delegate. If one candidate ends up amassing a huge delegate lead and becomes the de facto nominee, that's something the nominee and the DNC can work on."
The remainder of the call was focused on the campaign's strategy for Feb. 5 and beyond. Polls in many of those states, particularly the largest ones, show Clinton with significant leads. Yet Plouffe said those margins are shrinking and, given Obama's tendency to overperform in relation to polls, the campaign remains confident of scoring some significant wins -- and picking up a big chunk of the available delegates.
"In Iowa, in Nevada, in South Carolina, Sen. Obama dramatically outperformed the polls in those states," he said. "We think this is very important as you look ahead to the Feb. 5 states. When you look at the undecided voters, when you look at the soft supporters of the other candidates, we like what we see. As we look at how the rest of those voters are going to get allocated, we feel very good about their final direction."
Plouffe's argument has some evidence to back it up. Aside from New Hampshire, Obama has scored significantly higher than most polls predict. In the most recent example, South Carolina, Obama was averaging 38.4 percent in the polls, according to RealClearPolitics.com. He ended up winning 55.4 percent of the vote – a 17 percent difference.
Of course, some of those same polls have also either correctly guessed Clinton's support or underestimated it. So Obama isn't the only one who's shown an ability to exceed expectations so far.
The Obama campaign is also carefully setting expectations for the biggest prize of Super Tuesday and, in fact, the entire primary season: California.
"There's no doubt that she has the lead right now in the polls," Plouffe said of Clinton. "We think that's going to be very close from a delegate perspective."
The focus on delegates continued when Plouffe turned to the subject of rural voters. Democratic contests tend to give disproportionate influence to rural voters, and it was Obama's dominance of that demographic in Nevada that allowed him to leave the state with more delegates than Clinton, despite trailing her by 6 percent in the overall vote.
"As we look at Feb. 5, another look back would be our strength in small town and rural areas," he said. "We think that sets up very well for Feb. 5, not just in terms of states but in terms of delegates."