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Hillary Rodham Clinton’s shellacking of Barack Obama in the West Virginia primary Tuesday may burnish her image as a champion of the economically disadvantaged and bolster her determination to campaign through the final contests. But it does little to alter the unforgiving political landscape she faces.
The former first lady’s lopsided victory in West Virginia had long been expected, given the demographic makeup of the state: It is 95 percent white, has no urban core and counts among its residents some of the poorest and least educated of any state. It also had just 28 delegates at stake.
Clinton has performed strongly among white working-class voters throughout the campaign in states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, while Obama has struggled to adapt his message of hope and change to address the economic anxieties those voters face. That, in turn, has allowed the former first lady to openly question Obama’s chances in a general election against Republican John McCain.
In her speech Tuesday night, Clinton was expected to make a direct pitch to superdelegates on the electability argument, hoping they would reconsider the two candidacies.
The Associated Press made its West Virginia call based on surveys of voters as they left the polls. Not surprisingly, even before voting was done, the Clinton campaign seized on the expected outcome there to suggest Obama is having trouble winning primaries in important swing states.
“Hillary has predicted victory against Sen. McCain in West Virginia based on the strength of her economic message,” the campaign said in a memo to reporters. “Given the attempts by our opponent and some in the media to declare this race over, any significant increase in voter turnout, coupled with a decisive Clinton victory, would send a strong message that Democrats remain excited and energized by Hillary’s candidacy.”
But none of that changes the central problem for Clinton: Since her loss in North Carolina and narrow victory in Indiana last Tuesday, the New York senator has been battling the growing realization that her once-formidable candidacy may have finally run out of steam.
Saddled with more than $20 million in debt and facing a near mathematical impossibility of catching Obama among pledged delegates and in the popular vote, Clinton has watched a steady stream of superdelegates migrate toward the Illinois senator despite his apparent problems winning key party constituencies.
Superdelegate Roy Romer, a former Colorado governor and Democratic National Committee chairman under President Clinton, announced his support for Obama on Tuesday.
While Romer acknowledged a “great personal friendship” with Hillary Clinton, he said he believed the time had come to move forward to the general election.
“As I watched the campaign unfold, I realized there was a different kind of winning possibility with Senator Obama,” Romer said. “I became convinced Senator Obama is the most electable of the two.”
Obama, flush with cash and running a robust campaign in the final primary states, has turned much of his focus to McCain and the general election contest. He was spending Tuesday night in Missouri, an important swing state, before flying to Michigan on Wednesday.
Clinton’s advisers say she is well aware of the daunting task she faces but wants to carry on, believing she owes it to her supporters and to the voters eager to participate in the remaining contests.
Clinton is favored to win Kentucky’s primary next Tuesday and Puerto Rico’s on June 1. She also wants to see the stalemate over disputed results in Michigan and Florida resolved, hopefully at a meeting of the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee May 31.
Steve Grossman, a former DNC chairman who is supporting Clinton, says she has more than earned the right to continue her fight to the finish.
“Hillary, who is absolutely mindful of the daunting nature of the math, feels an obligation to her supporters and a belief that her voters have to be major participants in the fall campaign for a Democrat to win,” Grossman said. “She’s determined not to break faith with those voters — not just women, but a lot of them are. It’s about fairness and respect for Hillary and her army of activists, fairness and respect for the voters who’ve yet to be counted.”
Beth Fouhy covers presidential politics for The Associated Press.