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White House hopeful Hillary Clinton strove to stem rival Barack Obama’s surge in the Democratic nomination race Monday as she wooed Wisconsin’s blue-collar voters.
On the Republican side, runaway front-runner John McCain won the endorsement of former president George H.W. Bush, who could help the maverick senator court conservatives suspicious of where his loyalties lie.
The Democratic rivals fired off television advertisements and spent the weekend campaigning across the Midwestern state in a tough fight for Wisconsin’s 74 delegates with the latest poll showing Obama with a narrow five-point lead over Clinton.
A win here Tuesday could give Clinton’s faltering campaign a much-needed shot in the arm before a major showdown on March 4 in Ohio and Texas, where she currently holds double-digit leads in the fight for their combined 334 delegates.
Clinton is trailing Obama 1,235 to 1,302 delegates after he won eight straight primaries and caucuses since February 9, according to independent poll-tracker RealClearPolitics.com.
At least 2,025 delegates are needed to win the Democratic nomination.
The Illinois senator could make it 10 in a row Tuesday by capturing Wisconsin and the caucuses in Hawaii, the Pacific island state where he was born and which is holding caucuses on the same day.
Both camps acknowledged Monday that the Wisconsin primary would be close a race.
“We expect tomorrow will be competitive,” Obama campaign manager David Plouffe told reporters.
The Clinton campaign was similarly cautious.
“Obviously we’re doing the best we can to do the best we can,” her communications director, Howard Wolfson, told reporters.
But asked about the importance of Tuesday’s primary, Wolfson said: “I do not subscribe to the momentum theory of American politics. … Voters assess candidates based on who they think will be the best candidate.”
With blue-collar workers considered a key voting bloc in Wisconsin, Clinton unveiled a 13-page “economic blueprint” to create new jobs, end the housing crisis and revive the manufacturing sector.
“We have a lot of work to do to take back our country because our economy is not working the way it needs to,” Clinton told supporters at a town-hall-type meeting in De Pere, Wisconsin.
“It’s working for some. It’s working for the wealthy and the well connected. It’s worked quite well for them for the last seven years,” she said in St. Norbert College, taking a swipe at President George W. Bush’s policies.
While McCain secured the elder Bush’s endorsement, Obama visited former Democratic rival John Edwards, who has yet to endorse anyone, in North Carolina on Sunday.
The Democratic rivals would welcome an endorsement from Edwards, the party’s 2004 vice presidential nominee who ran a populist campaign promising to help the poor and America’s middle class.
The rival campaigns also exchanged fire on Monday, accusing each other of borrowing lines from others.
The Clinton camp, which has charged that Obama’s eloquent speeches mask a lack of substance, accused the Illinois senator of lifting words from Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick.
“If you’re going to talk about the value of words the words should be your own,” Wolfson said.
The Obama campaign hit back by releasing several Clinton catch phrases that it said he had used first, while Obama himself insisted that the country needs an inspirational leader if it will be able to overcome a host of problems.
“I make no apologies for getting people excited about their government because I believe government can work,” he told a rally in hard-hit Ohio.
“Senator Clinton said speeches don’t put food on the table,” he said.
“Well NAFTA didn’t put food on the table either,” he said, referring to the free trade agreement Clinton’s husband signed in his first term as president which is often blamed for devastating the nation’s manufacturing base.
While the Democrats slugged it out, McCain picked up the elder Bush’s endorsement, which could be crucial in his bid to woo conservatives.
“I believe now is the right time for me to help John in his effort to start building the broad-based coalition it’ll take for our values to carry the White House this fall,” Bush told a news conference alongside McCain in Texas.
His son, the current President Bush, has yet to endorse anyone, but has said he would help McCain if he won the nomination.