Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., are offering Democrats vastly different paths to the presidency, with their key arguments centering on which candidate is better equipped to defeat Republican John McCain.
While both campaigns selectively cite polling data to make their cases to Democrats, a thorough review of the numbers reveals a more nuanced portrait than either campaign is wont to acknowledge, Democratic strategists and pollsters say.
In arguing that each candidate is clearly more electable, the campaigns "are both wrong," said Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster who is not aligned with either campaign.
"They have different constituencies," Hart said. "Sen. Clinton has a greater ability to reach deeper and stronger into the Democratic constituency than does Sen. Obama. And Sen. Obama has a greater ability to reach across to independents and Republicans than Sen. Clinton."
Despite a rough primary campaign, national polls show both Clinton and Obama running strong against Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in the general election. The latest Gallup Poll numbers have McCain up 46-45 over Obama and 47-45 over Clinton -- both well within the poll's margin of error.
"Neither one has an argument that beats the other one on electability," said Donnie Fowler, a veteran Democratic operative. "No politician is perfect. The point is, they're very different candidates."
Indeed, Clinton and Obama claim they'd pull together very different electoral coalitions -- in each case, they hope, bringing together voting blocs that would give the Democratic Party an edge.
Clinton has demonstrated strong appeal among women and lower socioeconomic groups, and her campaign touts her as the best candidate in states that have constituted the battleground of recent presidential contests.
Obama, meanwhile, appears better positioned to grab upper-income voters and holds the promise of attracting blacks and younger voters to cast ballots in disproportionate numbers.
His appeal is also built in part on the possibility of him making traditionally Republican states competitive in a general election.
"We are going to put more states in play than Sen. Clinton," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe told reporters last week.
Clinton has ratcheted up her argument to superdelegates of late.
ABC News reported that Clinton told one superdelegate, Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., that Obama "can't win," and Clinton aides have been mentioning the controversy over speeches by Obama's former pastor as evidence that he'd be seen as too out-of-the-mainstream in a general election.
Clinton aides are hoping that a victory in Pennsylvania April 22 will add to other wins in critical general-election states, including Ohio and Florida, as they argue that Clinton is demonstrating superior electoral strength.
A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed Clinton leading McCain 44-42 in Florida, with McCain ahead of Obama 46-37 in the Sunshine State.