Time on Her Side: Obama Maintains Lead, but Clinton Might Have the Edge

Six weeks without a vote will test Obama's mettle as front-runner.


March 12, 2008— -- The Clinton campaign plans to use the coming six-week gap in primary voting to aggressively push its case that Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., lacks the necessary experience to be president as the superdelegates loom by far as the most important voters in the race.

After Obama's Tuesday win in Mississippi, the strategy of defining the Illinois senator while the delegate count stays essentially frozen reflects a belief by Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign advisers — after withstanding perhaps the roughest month of Clinton's presidential campaign — that the New York senator now has a powerful ally on her side: time.

Mississippi marks the last primary or caucus for a six-week stretch — by far the longest pause in this year's nomination fight.

That gives Clinton a chance to battle Obama without time pressures that magnify every moment on the trail, allowing her to make a deliberate and methodical case in favor of her candidacy — and against Obama's.

"When a team comes from far behind to tie it, that team usually comes back and does well," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist with close ties to the Clinton campaign. "This period is going to cause people to really think through who is best able to match up with John McCain."

Obama has drawn considerable momentum in the race by winning caucuses and primaries.

His victory in Saturday's Wyoming caucus, coupled with another win in Mississippi, mean he's on track to reclaim most or all of the delegates he lost with Clinton's resounding victories in the far larger states of Ohio and Texas last week.

But Clinton's campaign has proved more adept at seizing control of the race when no one is voting.

Just in the past few weeks, Clinton has kept pressure on Obama with a stinging TV ad suggesting he's unprepared to serve as commander in chief; left him on the defensive over NAFTA and controversial comments made by a high-level foreign-policy adviser; and made headlines by suggesting publicly that Obama could be considering as her running mate.

The lull in the voting action is likely to include several debates in Pennsylvania, a format in which Clinton has typically excelled.

It will also allow the Clinton campaign to work to find a way for Florida and Michigan to have their votes count; both states favor Clinton demographically, and a solution that allows those state delegations to be seated at the convention is likely to cut into Obama's delegate lead.

And the next primary on the calendar -- Pennsylvania, April 22 -- is in a large, diverse state that's similar to others that have leaned toward Clinton.

Clinton has maintained a solid lead in Pennsylvania polls, and Obama's advisers acknowledge that their candidate is the underdog in the Keystone State.

A win there would add to Clinton's delegate count, pull her close in the overall popular vote and strengthen her campaign's argument that she's best suited to carry the important states on the presidential map.

"It could be, to some extent, a split decision," said Steve Grossman, a former Democratic National Committee chairman who is backing Clinton. "There should be no rush to judgment now, since we have a lot more evidence to gather."

Obama remains the Democratic front-runner, by virtue of his delegate edge in addition to his overall advantage in the popular vote, and his superior fundraising capacity.

Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist who is not aligned with either candidate, said Obama can tout those advantages -- making a claim that he is winning the race -- over the next month and a half.

"For six weeks, Obama will not only be able to trump his sizable pledged delegate lead but will likely have more money and organizational advantages," said Kofinis, who was communications director for John Edwards' presidential bid.

Barring an unlikely series of Clinton blowouts, Clinton will not be able to catch Obama in the delegate count, since the Democratic Party allocates delegates proportionally in each state.

In an interview on Good Morning America Wednesday, Obama referenced recent wins in Wyoming and Mississippi, and looked ahead to the fight in Pennsylvania.

"I think that we've still got some work to do. Obviously as long as Senator Clinton is running-- we've got a contest. And-- she's a tenacious campaigner," Obama said.

But neither Obama nor Clinton can clinch the nomination without significant support from superdelegates, the nearly 800 party leaders who receive automatic convention votes and can support whomever they choose.

Slightly less than half of the superdelegates have not publicly committed to either candidate, and all superdelegates are free to change their minds before the convention.

Clinton's victories in Ohio and Texas March 4 appear to have frozen most undecided superdelegates in place. Only four have chosen a side (all for Obama) in the past week.

The undecided superdelegates are by far the most important audience for both candidates to reach, and Clinton operatives have been urging them to stay on the sidelines pending the results of future primaries.

Grossman, the former DNC chairman, said that if Obama leads in delegates but Clinton has an advantage or is extremely close in the popular vote, it would be "tantamount to a draw."

In any event, he said, superdelegates should feel free to make their decision based on who they believe the stronger candidate will be.

Grossman added that he is confident about Clinton's chances in Pennsylvania, since she'll be able to campaign extensively there, as she did in Ohio and Texas.

"Things have to be nurtured and developed further," he said. "She connected with people in Ohio and Texas in the run-up to the primaries in a way that allowed her vulnerability, her humanity, and her personal qualities to show through."

But with Pennsylvania looming, for the first time since Super Tuesday Feb. 5, Clinton will go into a contest with high expectations: Anything less than a decisive win will be viewed as a disappointment, Kofinis said.

And while Clinton has been more adept at shaping the race of late, she can't be overtly negative without risking a backlash -- just as Obama can't afford to let her attacks go unanswered, Kofinis said.

"The Clinton campaign has to be sensitive that too many pointed attacks over six weeks will likely backfire, while the Obama campaign can't allow the Clinton camp to define each media cycle," he said.

Obama has promised to fight back with more fervor, and his campaign has been delivering on that promise in recent days.

Monday Obama angrily pushed back at Clinton's suggestions that he could join her on the ticket, and Tuesday Obama's campaign blasted Clinton supporter Geraldine Ferraro for suggesting that he was getting special treatment because of his race.

As for Clinton, while she has succeeded in buying time to make her case, she needs to use the coming weeks to make an affirmative case for her candidacy -- not just to tear down Obama, Lehane said.

"The key question is, are they able to establish a really defining message, to give people a reason to vote for her, to get some separation on the message front?" he said. "Can you give people a reason for people to be voting for you?"

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