Still the underdog in a contest that won’t quit, Hillary Rodham Clinton pulled off a feisty act of political survival in the Pennsylvania primary, defeating Barack Obama to keep her Democratic presidential hopes alive.
The New York senator’s comfortable win sends the race on to North Carolina, where the flush-with-money Obama is favored; and Indiana, where the two are close.
Obama was able to stave off an eyebrow-arching blowout by Clinton even while falling short in his effort to bring the polarizing competition effectively to a close. Clinton beat him by about 10 points.
“Some counted me out and said to drop out,” the former first lady told Philadelphia supporters who roared their disapproval of that idea and cheered her victory in a state where Obama outspent her 2-to-1. “But the American people don’t quit. And they deserve a president who doesn’t quit, either.”
Their Keystone state matchup was fierce and bitter, which seemed to harden attitudes among Democrats even as Republican John McCain tended to the unification of his party and campaigned across the country in preparation for the fall. Only half of each Democrat’s supporters said they would be satisfied if the other Democrat won the nomination, according to interviews with voters as they left polling stations.
“After 14 long months, it’s easy to forget what this campaign’s about from time to time,” Obama told an Evansville, Ind., rally, obliquely conceding that the Pennsylvania race turned nasty.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the distractions and the silliness and the tit-for-tat that consumes our politics, the bickering that none of us are entirely immune to, and it trivializes the profound issues: two wars, an economy in recession, a planet in peril, issues that confront our nation. That kind of politics is not why we are here tonight. It’s not why I’m here, and it’s not why you’re here.”
Obama wasted no time making tracks to Indiana. His plane was in the air when the primary was called in Clinton’s favor, which he discovered upon landing.
The Illinois senator trailed in opinion polls all along but had made up ground in the last few weeks, despite a series of inartful episodes in a campaign that once seemed smooth at every turn.
Clinton was winning 55 percent of the vote to 45 percent for Obama with 99 percent of the vote counted. She won the votes of blue-collar workers, women and white men in an election where the economy was the dominant concern. He was favored by blacks, the affluent and voters who recently switched to the Democratic Party, a group that comprised about one in 10 Pennsylvania voters, according to surveys conducted by The Associated Press and the TV networks.
Clinton won at least 66 delegates to the party’s national convention, with 35 still to be awarded, according to AP’s analysis of election returns. Obama won at least 57. A final count could come Wednesday, or later.
Obama maintains a clear delegate advantage as well as the lead in the popular vote, and there are not many opportunities left for Clinton to turn that around. Moreover, party leaders are growing impatient with the drawn-out struggle and have watched nervously as McCain, his nomination race long settled, has climbed in opinion polls.
Against those forces, Clinton clings to hope that she can persuade convention superdelegates to swing behind her en masse. She’s touting her record winning most of the big states and hoping superdelegates will see her Pennsylvania victory as validation of her ability to appeal beyond a narrow base in the general campaign.
“For six weeks, Senator Obama and I crisscrossed the state … being judged side by side, making our best case,” she told supporters. “You listened and today you chose. With two wars abroad and an economic crisis here at home, you know the stakes are high and the challenges are great. But you also know the possibilities … are endless with a president who’s ready to lead on Day One.”
The keen interest in the primary was reflected at polling stations. Elections officials projected turnout among Pennsylvania’s 8.3 million registered voters at 40 percent to 50 percent, double that of the state’s primary four years ago.
Some of her aides conceded the Indiana contest in two weeks was another must-win challenge for her.
Obama reported spending more than $11 million on television in Pennsylvania, more than any place else. That compared with less than $5 million by Clinton.
And some of those ads were tough — fodder fit for Republicans to use when the time comes.
“In the last 10 years Barack Obama has taken almost $2 million from lobbyists, corporations and PACs,” said a Clinton ad in the final days. “The head of his New Hampshire campaign is a drug company lobbyist, in Indiana an energy lobbyist, a casino lobbyist in Nevada.”
Obama responded with an ad that accused Clinton of “11th-hour smears paid for by lobbyist money.” It said that unlike Clinton, Obama “doesn’t take money from special interest PACs or Washington lobbyists — not one dime.”
Obama was forced on the defensive by incendiary comments by his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, then got into hot water all by himself by saying small-town Americans cling to guns and religion because of their economic hardships.
For her part, Clinton conceded that she had not landed under sniper fire in Bosnia while first lady, even though she said several times that she had. And she replaced her chief strategist, Mark Penn, after he met with officials of the Colombian government seeking passage of a free trade agreement that she opposes.
The remaining Democratic contests are primaries in North Carolina, Indiana, Oregon, Kentucky, West Virginia, Montana, South Dakota and Puerto Rico, and caucuses in Guam.