Hillary Rodham Clinton declared Wednesday that her primary victories in Ohio, Texas and Rhode Island had reordered the Democratic presidential race in her favor. A resilient Barack Obama countered with fresh pledges of support from superdelegates and said his lead remained intact.
One day after his worst showing in a month, Obama blamed negative attacks by the former first lady for his defeats and quickly made good on a promise to sharpen his criticism of her.
But there was no disputing he had missed a chance to drive her from the race. Or that in contrast to the Republicans, who have settled on Arizona Sen. John McCain as their nominee, the Democrats face the prospect of a potentially divisive campaign lasting deep into spring.
“I’m concerned about unity. That’s the major reason I’ve stayed out of this,” said Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who is neutral. “The longer this campaign goes on, the more difficult it will be to unify and heal.”
Returns from Texas caucuses showed Obama reclaiming some of the ground in the delegate competition that he lost Tuesday night as Clinton’s victories piled up. Overall, she showed a gain of 12 delegates for the contests on the ballot, according to The Associated Press count, with another dozen to be awarded. In all 370 were at stake. Texas Democrats were still counting ballots from the Tuesday night caucuses.
In addition, Obama gained endorsements from superdelegates in Georgia, Vermont, Ohio, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
Clinton picked up two superdelegates during the day but lost one, for a gain of one.
Obama’s overall delegate lead stood at 1,567 to 1,462 as the rivals looked ahead to the final dozen contests on the calendar. It takes 2,025 to win the nomination.
That left weeks for public campaigning, millions more to be spent on television ads, probably one more debate and plenty of private cajoling of party leaders, the superdelegates who attend the convention but are not chosen in primaries or caucuses.
About 350 of them remain uncommitted, enough to swing the nomination in the unlikely event they decide to line up behind one candidate or the other.
“We are vigorously talking to the uncommitted automatic delegates. The Obama campaign is doing the same thing,” Harold Ickes, a Clinton adviser, told reporters.
There also was talk of arranging for makeup primaries or caucuses in Michigan and Florida, two states that were stripped of delegates by the Democratic National Committee for holding elections early in defiance of party rules.
The two states’ governors, Republican Charlie Crist in Florida and Democrat Jennifer Granholm in Michigan, issued a joint statement calling on party officials “to resolve this matter and to ensure that the voters … are full participants in the formal selection of their parties’ nominees.”
While the Democratic Party stripped the two states of their delegates, Republicans cut the two delegations in half.
Of more immediate concern for Clinton and Obama are the Wyoming caucuses, scheduled for Saturday, with 12 delegates at stake, and the Mississippi primary next Tuesday, with 33 more.
Obama has plans to campaign in both states, but it appeared Clinton would focus her energy on the Pennsylvania primary on April 22. It boasts 158 delegates, the largest prize remaining on the calendar.
Both Clinton and Obama made a round of morning interview programs as their campaign entered a new phase.
The former first lady said McCain’s ascension meant Democratic primary voters were looking at the race through a new lens. “It is now about who is strongest against the Republican nominee, John McCain,” she said on CNN. “You know, people who voted a month ago didn’t know who the Republican nominee was going to be.
“They didn’t perhaps factor in that it will be about national security,” she said of the fall campaign.
McCain is a former Vietnam War prisoner, a veteran of more than two decades in the Senate, with long experience on the Armed Services Committee. One of the hallmarks of his campaign has been his support for the Iraq War, and he frequently tells audiences he supported an increase in troop strength before President Bush announced one a little over a year ago.
Clinton forcefully injected national security issues into the Democratic campaign in Texas with a television ad that did not mention Obama, yet questioned whether he was prepared to handle a crisis if the phone rang in the White House at 3 a.m.
Obama, on a long flight home to Chicago from Texas, told reporters he believed criticism like that helped send him to defeat.
“What exactly is this foreign policy experience,” he asked mockingly. “Was she negotiating treaties? Was she handling crises? The answer is no.”
Obama also attributed his defeats in part to more skeptical news coverage. “Many of you in the press corps had been persuaded that you had been too hard on her and too soft on me,” he said.
His aides signaled a more aggressive tone ahead when they distributed a memo saying Clinton was trying to avoid answering potentially embarrassing questions by keeping her and her husband’s tax returns for the past several years private.
Clinton’s communications director, Howard Wolfson, rebutted quickly, saying returns for the years since the Clintons left the White House would be released around April 15.
“Instead of making false attacks, we urge Senator Obama to release all relevant financial and other information related to indicted political fixer Tony Rezko,” Wolfson added, referring to a former fundraiser for the Illinois senator who is on trial for corruption.