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Hillary Rodham Clinton coasted to a large but largely symbolic victory in working-class West Virginia on Tuesday, handing Barack Obama one of the worst defeats of the campaign yet scarcely slowing his march toward the Democratic presidential nomination.
“The White House is won in the swing states. And I am winning the swing states,” Clinton told cheering supporters at a victory rally.
She coupled praise for Obama with a pledge to persevere in a campaign in which she has become the decided underdog. “This race isn’t over yet,” she said. “Neither of us has the total delegates it takes to win.”
Obama looked ahead to the Oregon primary later in the month and to the general election campaign against Republican John McCain, but the West Virginia defeat underscored his weakness among blue collar voters who will be pivotal in the fall.
“This is our chance to build a new majority of Democrats and independents and Republicans who know that four more years of George Bush just won’t do,” Obama said in Missouri, which looms as a battleground state in November.
“This is our moment to turn the page on the divisions and distractions that pass for politics in Washington,” added the man seeking to become the first black presidential nominee of a major party.
With votes from 98 percent of West Virginia’s precincts counted, Clinton was winning 67 percent of the vote, to 26 percent for Obama.
Clinton’s triumph approached the 70 percent of the vote she gained in Arkansas, her best state to date. It came courtesy of an overwhelmingly white electorate comprised of the kinds of voters who have favored her throughout the primaries. Nearly a quarter were 60 or older, and a similar number had no education beyond high school. More than half were in families with incomes of $50,000 or less, and the former first lady was wining a whopping 69 percent of their votes.
Clinton won 20 of the 28 delegates at stake in West Virginia and Obama won eight.
That left Obama with 1,883.5 delegates, to 1,717 for Clinton, out of 2,026 needed to clinch the nomination at the party convention in Denver this summer. The Democratic win on Tuesday in a Mississippi special election increased by one the number of delegates needed to win the nomination.
Clinton’s aides contended that her strength with blue-collar voters — already demonstrated in primaries in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana — makes her the more electable candidate in the fall.
In her remarks, Clinton said, “I deeply admire Senator Obama,” but she added, “our case is stronger.” She said she had won roughly 17 million votes in the primaries and caucuses to date.
Obama also narrowly won Nebraska’s nonbinding primary. He had won the state’s caucuses earlier in the year and with them, a majority of its delegates.
Clinton arranged a meeting with superdelegates for Wednesday. About 250 of them remain publicly uncommitted.
The delegate tally aside, the former first lady struggled to overcome an emerging Democratic consensus that Obama effectively wrapped up the nomination last week with a victory in the North Carolina primary and a narrow loss in Indiana.
He picked up four superdelegates during the day, including Roy Romer, former Democratic Party chairman.
“This race, I believe, is over,” Romer told reporters on a conference call. He said only Clinton can decide when to withdraw, but he added: “There is a time we need to end it and direct ourselves to the general election. I think that time is now.”
Only five more primaries remain on the calendar, beginning next week in Kentucky and Oregon, then Puerto Rico on June 1 and Montana and South Dakota two days later.
There’s another important date on the calendar, though — the May 31 meeting of a convention committee that will hear Clinton’s appeal to seat the delegations from disputed primaries in Florida and Michigan.
Clinton has long argued to have the delegates seated — a decision that would cut into Obama’s delegate advantage — even though the primaries were held so early in the year that they violated Democratic party rules.
In recent weeks, Obama has signaled a willingness to compromise on the issue as he has become more confident of his ultimate victory in the fight for the nomination.
Clinton and Obama briefly shook hands on the Senate floor Tuesday after interrupting their campaigns for a few hours to vote on energy-related bills.
In the days since, close to 30 superdelegates have swung behind Obama, evidence that party officials are beginning to coalesce around the first-term Illinois senator who is seeking to become the first black to win a major party presidential nomination. Three of his new supporters formerly backed Clinton, who surrendered her lead in superdelegates late last week for the first time since the campaign began.
In his appearance in Cape Girardeau, Mo., Obama sketched the case against McCain. “For two decades, he has supported policies that have shifted the burden onto working people. And his only answer to the problems created by George Bush’s policies is to give them another four years to fail,” he said.
Tucker Bounds, a spokesman for McCain, said in response that Obama’s rhetoric showed “more of the same negative, partisan politics that have paralyzed Washington for too long. Barack Obama talks about change and bipartisanship, but he has never showed the leadership needed to bridge party divides.”
Clinton had spent parts of several days campaigning in West Virginia in search of victory.
She refrained from criticizing Obama directly, but had a cautionary word nonetheless for party leaders who seemed eager to pivot to the fall campaign. “I keep telling people, no Democrat has won the White House since 1916 without winning West Virginia,” she said at Tudor’s Biscuit World in the state’s capital city.
Obama was in the state on Monday, but it was clear he was looking beyond the primary.
He said several days ago he expected Clinton to win by significant margins in West Virginia and then in Kentucky, which holds its primary next week. He devoted more time to Oregon, which also holds a primary next week, and announced plans to campaign in several other states that loom as battlegrounds in the fall against McCain.
Among them are Florida and Michigan, two states that held early primaries in defiance of national Democratic Party rules. The two combined have 44 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House, and Obama has not yet campaigned in either.
Obama also broke from his usual practice by wearing a flag pin on his suit jacket. He told several thousand people at the Charleston Civic Center that patriotism means more than saluting flags and holding parades.