Crunch time for Clinton

Simple victory may not be enough for Hillary Clinton in Tuesday’s Pennsylvania Democratic primary, as Barack Obama tries yet again to kill off her never-say-die White House bid.

Many commentators believe Clinton needs a double-digit triumph, in an economically struggling state packed with blue-collar voters who normally flock to her cause, to dispel the idea that Obama is becoming the inevitable nominee.

The former first lady, trailing Obama in nominating wins, delegates, and some national polls, needs to win big to freshen her rationale for staying in the protracted struggle for the nomination.

“She is facing a situation now where the numbers are virtually impossible, now the question has come for many Democrats, why continue now, if you can’t actually win?” said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University expert.

Clinton is making a fervent case to Democratic “superdelegates,” the party officials who will now effectively crown the nominee, since neither candidate is likely to reach the 2,025 pledged delegates needed to win outright.

She says only she can inspire the party’s core powerbase of working-class voters, crucial in swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, which can go either Democratic or Republican in a general election.

Clinton used a head-to-head debate with Obama last week to pound him over his understanding of American values, after he said some US workers were “bitter” though polls seemed to show she hurt herself as much as him.

But on Friday she faced her own new struggle with her party’s base, after being caught on tape decrying the influence of progressive group in the caucus nominating contests won by Obama.

If Clinton wins on Tuesday, the parameters of the party endgame and the subsequent nine nominating contests will be set by her margin of victory.

“I expect her to win, the question is, will it be by 10 or more, or 10 or less, and the question is, how much less,” said Tom Baldino, professor of political science at Wilkes University, Pennsylvania.

An average of Pennsylvania polls by independent website shows Clinton up by nearly six percent, though some recent polling has the race down to a few points.

Clinton aides are downplaying talk of a big win.

“This is not going to be a blowout,” said Clinton’s Pennsylvania state director Nick Clemons, saying Obama had narrowed his boss’s once gaping lead here by outspending her three-to-one in an advertizing blitz.

“We need a win on Tuesday, we expect that this is going to be a close win,” he said.

A strong performance from Obama would help him shake off a miserable six-week run in which he has been forced to explain his ties to controversial figures from his past, including the fiery preacher Jeremiah Wright.

It would confound Clinton’s claims that only she can win swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania which Democrats need in November.

While she has vowed to stay in the race to the end, defeat here would surely spark a torrent of calls by Democratic graybeards for her to get out of the race.

New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, a Clinton supporter, Friday candidly said on MSNBC that a loss on Tuesday would be “trouble.”

“I think any objective analysis would say — that’s pretty much a door closer.”

A poor Obama showing in Pennsylvania, however, especially among blue-collar white voters, would likely revive the controversy over his comment that some smalltown Americans were “bitter” and turned to guns and God.

It would expand a narrative that he lacks the killer instinct to knock out Clinton, after losing to her in New Hampshire, and in Ohio and Texas last month, when his campaign was rampant.

Recent days have seen growing signs of unease among party leaders that the Democratic feud may be helping Republican presidential pick John McCain.

“If the numbers are not looking good for her in Pennsylvania, it gives an argument to a superdelegate,” said Zelizer.

Some new polling suggests that despite enduring a rocky month, Obama is pulling away from Clinton in the minds of Democratic voters nationwide.

He lead by a shock 19 points, 54 percent to 35 percent, among registered Democrats and those who lean Democratic in a national Newsweek poll.

The corresponding survey, in March, when Clinton revived her hopes with wins in Ohio and Texas, had him with a razor-thin 45-44 percent lead.