Democrats in race to the finish

Hillary Rodham Clinton captured needed states Tuesday night — including the brass ring of California — even as Barack Obama ate into her traditional base of support on a topsy-turvy night where ballot victories were not the only measure of success.

The grand spectacle of Super Tuesday’s coast-to-coast nominating contests marked a turning point in the Democratic presidential contest from euphoric election night victories to painstaking delegate counting. Consider it the beginning of a long hard slog.

The two candidates seesawed their way across the landscape, trading triumph and loss in state after state. Clinton won in the delegate-rich states of New Jersey, Massachusetts and New York, her home state. Obama answered with wins in Georgia, Alabama and his own home state of Illinois.

Altogether, 22 states were in play but neither candidate could emerge with enough delegates to secure the nomination. Clinton led with 173 delegates in early voting Tuesday, while Obama captured 149, though that did not include all the states where outcomes had been declared.

Both were winning in all regions of the country — Obama held an advantage in the Midwest and the Plains states, and Clinton in the Northeast. The two split the South.

Clinton could take heart in stemming what appeared to have been an Obama surge fueled by his victory in South Carolina, the endorsements of high-profile members of the Kennedy family and a banner fundraising month.

“Tonight in record numbers you voted not just to make history but to remake America,” Clinton said.

Obama found hope in exit polls that showed he was encroaching on Clinton’s voting base. Clinton had only a slight edge among women and with whites, two areas where she has generally dominated Obama. Clinton was getting strong support from Hispanics, an increasingly important voting bloc. But Obama led among men — including white men, a group with whom he has struggled for votes in most previous contests.

Those results augured well for Obama in contests in coming weeks.

“There is one thing on this February night that we don’t need the final results to know — our time has come,” Obama said after polls closed in California. “Our time has come. Our movement is real, and change is coming to America.”

The campaigns, like sports teams that have clinched a playoff spot, already have been preparing for the matches ahead. Obama has been advertising in states with primaries and caucuses over the next seven days. Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, all of which hold primaries on Feb. 12, play to Obama’s strengths with blacks and upscale, educated voters.

Clinton strategists are looking over the horizon into March and April when Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania hold primaries.

Time could work against Clinton, however. Obama raised $32 million to her $13.5 million in January — a financial edge that will help him organize and advertise in the upcoming battlegrounds. On Tuesday, her campaign called for four debates between now and March 4, a sign that she wants to supplement her financial disadvantage with free media.

Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe predicted Clinton’s fundraising would get a boost from her successes Tuesday night. “There will be a lot of people who will say this woman is for real,” he said on MSNBC.

After a month of early contests — from Iowa to New Hampshire to Nevada to South Carolina — the two candidates have essentially divided the electorate into two component parts. He gets young voters, educated voters, black voters. She gets women, working-class voters and Hispanics.

Both candidates have worked hard to win over supporters of John Edwards, who dropped out of the presidential race last Wednesday after a third-place finish in South Carolina. They spent a combined $20 million on advertising in Super Tuesday states. Their respective messages found their audiences. Clinton had about a 10 percentage point edge over Obama as the Democrat best qualified to be commander in chief. He had a similar margin over her as the candidates most likely to unite the country.

Obama seemed to benefit from Edwards’ departure, expanding his support among white voters from one in four in the South Carolina primary to better than two out of five across the 16 primary states. “She has ceiling issues, and the people who aren’t for her we think are very available to us,” Obama campaign manager David Plouffe told reporters Tuesday.

But Clinton had reason to cheer as well. She beat Obama in Massachusetts despite Obama’s strength among highly educated voters and opponents of the war and high-profile endorsements from the state’s political power troika — U.S. Sens. Edward Kennedy, John Kerry and Gov. Deval Patrick.

With five states still undeclared, both candidates had won six primaries each. Obama also won three state caucuses to Clinton’s one. Clinton also won the caucus in American Samoa.

The biggest prize was California, with 370 delegates. Obama was leading in the state among white voters, but Clinton won by getting overwhelming support from Hispanics and Asians, who together comprised nearly four in 10 California voters.

The 22 states holding contests, as well as American Samoa, offer 1,681 Democratic delegates. A total of 2,025 delegates are needed to secure the Democratic nomination.

Democrats award delegates proportionally in every state. That means the second-place finisher who gets at least 15 percent of the vote also will win delegates. Indeed, even if a candidate wins the popular vote in a state by a wide margin, the edge on delegates could be significantly smaller.

The counting was just beginning.


Jim Kuhnhenn has been covering politics in Washington for more than 14 years.