In final contests, it's all about momentum

When South Dakota scheduled its primary to be dead last of the 56 Democratic nominating contests, no one thought the vote would matter much.

"The expectation was that it would be cut and dried and a done deal," says Judy Olson Duhamel, a former state party chairwoman.

But here come Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, former president Bill Clinton and Ethel Kennedy, and a bunch of volunteers and TV ads, pouring into the state that votes June 3.

So South Dakota must matter after all — and so must stragglers Oregon and Kentucky (voting Tuesday), Puerto Rico (June 1) and Montana (also June 3) bringing up the rear of an epically drawn-out primary battle.

The Obama campaign has said the Illinois senator will have a majority of pledged delegates after Oregon and Kentucky vote on Tuesday. State polls show Obama leading in Oregon and Clinton ahead in Kentucky.

The Clinton campaign is looking to the May 31 meeting of the Democratic rules committee, which will decide how to handle delegates that were stripped from Florida and Michigan because they scheduled early primaries. Clinton counts the popular vote from those state primaries, which she won, as part of her total. Clinton wants to use a lead in popular voting to persuade superdelegates to support her.

If those are the determining events for the nomination, what are the last few contests for? Bragging rights, momentum and symbolism.

"It doesn't look like it's going to matter in terms of delegates," says Kenneth Blanchard, political scientist at Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D. "The only thing that does matter is if Mrs. Clinton can pull off another blowout here. That would clearly make it look like she is the one who can win in large parts of the country."

South Dakotans, of course, see it differently. "The Democratic Party is like a racehorse. Those horses are running wide open now and lathered up. And when that finish line comes, it's going to be a tight one," says Dennis Jones, whose farm near Aberdeen hosted Clinton on Thursday. "Why not let them run wide open all the way?"

Though both Clinton and Obama have begun to direct more rhetorical fire at presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, and Obama has begun to campaign in general election swing states such as Missouri and Michigan, both candidates are still hitting the last five contests hard.

Clinton campaigns in Oregon today. Former president Bill Clinton has hit the state twice and Obama supporter Kennedy arrives today. Obama will be in South Dakota and Oregon today.

"Neither side looks like they're getting ready to pull up stakes," says Rick Hauffe, executive director of the South Dakota Democratic Party.

The Clinton campaign insists the last primaries are significant, period.

"Every delegate matters," Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson says about the final contests. "They also could provide one of the candidates with momentum … and both candidates are looking to show their strengths."

The goal is to sway superdelegates, the party leaders who can ignore the popular vote and who have a decisive role in the nomination. Obama now leads among superdelegates.

"If there's a strong showing for Hillary in South Dakota, I would think that would certainly give cause and pause for them to rethink," says Duhamel, a Clinton supporter.

Even with an advantage in delegates, the Obama campaign could benefit from wins in Montana and South Dakota, mostly white states with high proportions of working-class and older voters, Clinton's base.

"Having these two Western primaries on the same day and having it be the capper — given how this race has gone I actually see it as being pretty significant," says Kevin Gillis, Obama's state spokesman. "You want to end this thing on a positive."