Campaign nears a crucial point

Presidential races eventually reach a tipping point. The Democratic contest is fast approaching that point (the Republicans are far beyond it).

In recent nomination fights, early victories in Iowa and New Hampshire proved decisive. Not this year. Easily the most memorable, and gripping, presidential campaign in decades isn't over yet, even after more than 30 states have voted.

Either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton could win, though the argument for Clinton is growing strained after ten primary and caucus defeats in a row.

The race is no longer even. Obama's lopsided victories this week in Wisconsin and Hawaii boosted him to his largest lead yet. He alone is nearing the tipping point, and it could be just days away.

With a dwindling number of voter tests left, there are fewer opportunities for Clinton to hold him off. Her odds of success could grow extremely remote unless she wins Ohio and Texas on March 4, and with Obama continuing to broaden his support from former Clinton bastions among white women and working-class men, it's tough to see how she can rebound.

Those big-state showdowns, a week from Tuesday, will leave only a couple of large states and a handful of medium-sized ones over the final three months of the primary season. That's why Obama and Clinton were already in Texas and Ohio, respectively, on the most recent election night.

Those two states now have assumed outsized importance, because winning there could well take the Democratic battle past the tipping point.

Tad Devine, one of the most experienced Democratic delegate counters, says that once a candidate gains a lead of 200 or 300 delegates, the race is essentially over. Even if the leader hasn't secured enough delegates needed to lock away the nomination, Democratic rules--which allocate delegates on a proportional basis--make a comeback all but impossible.

After March 4, it's unlikely that Obama's lead--including superdelegates--will be that large. But he has piled up a 180-delegate advantage, thanks to his increasingly impressive victories over the past month, and that may prove to be the decisive figure.

Clinton and her top strategists have signaled that she'll fight all the way to the convention to secure her place atop the '08 ticket. Since neither candidate will reach the magic number of 2,205 with delegates won in the primaries and caucuses alone, a drawn-out struggle that lasts another six months remains a possibility.

But even some leading Clinton supporters think she's unlikely to go beyond the final voter tests in early June. Obama has been expanding his coalition, winning more white voters, blue-collar workers and women---the anchors of Clinton's dwindling base.

What could happen to change that? Perhaps some revelation that causes voters to sharply revise their opinion of Obama. Clinton aides argue that Obama has gotten soft treatment from the news media. Expect scrutiny to become more intense--either because front-runners typically get examined more closely or because Clinton decides to "turn up the heat" even more. Another possibility: buyer's remorse. Once a candidate appears to have all but won the nomination, the race sometimes enters a contrary phase in which voters suddenly back away from the front-runner. If that happens, look for Clinton to score upset victories in April or May.

Though she has virtually no realistic chance of winning the pledged delegate count, she could well feel justified to launch a prolonged, and potentially ugly and divisive struggle---all the way to the convention. It's happened before.

More likely, the reality of her situation would force Clinton to reconsider a scorched-earth strategy. Losing Ohio would be widely interpreted as the beginning of the end of the race---the tipping point. After the drubbing she got in Wisconsin, a state that set up well for her and is similar, in many ways, to Ohio, that appears not only be possible, but perhaps likely.

Clinton could, and probably would, hold out for one last shot at a turnaround in Pennsylvania, in late April, hoping that something would happen over the long, six-week campaign there lead Democrats to reconsider the notion of having a lightly experienced candidate as their nominee.

A Clinton victory in Ohio, an upset, perhaps, in light of the way her campaign appears to be falling apart, would prolong the suspense, at least until Pennsylvania voted and possibly much longer. Winning any of the closing contests, such as North Carolina's primary, could give Clinton a credible reason to keep going.

If she does slow Obama's momentum, it might well mean a spring and summer of squabbles over seating the Michigan and Florida delegations--unless officials in those states opt for a do-over plan that could, in effect, take the race into overtime.

Today, that seems unlikely, and with the tipping point approaching, the race could be heading toward a relatively swift resolution, much faster than the Clinton team would want to see. It's those pesky superdelegates--the nearly 800 elected officials and party activists who automatically get one-fifth of the votes at the convention and the freedom to back any candidate they choose.

Delegate-counter Devine drew a snarling reaction from one of Clinton's leading strategists, Harold Ickes, on a recent conference call. Ickes was reacting to an op-ed Devine wrote in the New York Times that urged superdelegates to hold off endorsing a candidate until the voters render a clear verdict.

Devine wrote that superdelegates were invented, back in the '80s, to promote party unity. (There were other purposes, too, like guarding against the danger that primary voters got carried away with a candidate--an overly liberal one--who'd drag the entire party to defeat in November.)

Devine also argued--and here's where Hillaryland went bonkers--that superdelegates "were created . . . to provide the margin of victory to the candidate who had won the most support from primary and caucus voters."

That's a pro-Obama argument this season. The Clinton counter-argument is that superdelegates should go with the candidate who has the best chance of defeating John McCain.

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe calls the recent superdelegate fight and the continuing flap over Michigan and Florida the last two firewalls in the Clinton strategy. Obama's strong appeal to independent voters and the latest national polls suggest that he is winning the argument over electability.

Clinton's case now depends on her ability to hold support from Hispanics, the one crucial group in November that Obama has yet to pry convincingly from her grip. Watch Texas to see if he has any more luck, now that he has more time to sell himself to Latinos. Her strategy there is heavily geared toward maximizing her vote from Latinos, though she may well lose the delegate contest in the state, if not the popular vote.

Once Obama hits the tipping point, the entire debate about superdelegates and Michigan and Florida will become irrelevant--because the superdelegates will likely follow the increasingly convincing primary results. Obama will then have enough delegate votes to prevail in any potential convention battle over credentials or rules.

Some prominent superdelegates, including Georgia Rep. John Lewis, a civil-rights legend, have already admitted having second thoughts about supporting Clinton. As Obama was reeling off consecutive victories, superdelegates were slowly falling in line.

Between late last month and early this week, Obama had cut Clinton's lead among superdelegates in half--from 105 to 47. He is picking up support from previously undecided superdelegates, while some former Clinton backers are reclassifying themselves as undecided. Roughly half the superdelegates are still publicly uncommitted. Democratic strategists who aren't tied to either campaign say Clinton has probably picked up most of the ones she'll get, barring a drastic shift in the course of the race.

Obama's post-Super Tuesday landslides are a sign of "acceptance" among rank-and-file Democratic voters, says Tony Coelho, who managed Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign for a time and gave $2,300 to Clinton's campaign, the maximum allowed. "He's very acceptable to a broader base of people, and that's what's hurting her."

Debates this week and next are probably Clinton's last best chance to trip up Obama, whose debate performance has improved after an uneven start. That's why winning Ohio and Texas is so crucial to Clinton's effort to keep her hopes alive, and why the Democratic contest could get extremely aggressive over the next few days.

If Obama avoids mistakes and holds her off on March 4, the race will have reached the tipping point. It may well go on, for weeks, if not months, but the chances will continue to increase, as the contest winds down, that the party will swing behind him by the time the primary season is over in early June.

Paul West is the Baltimore Sun's bureau chief in Washington. He joined the paper as national political correspondent and has covered every presidential campaign since the 1980s. Before coming to Washington, he was a reporter in Texas and Georgia, where he covered education, the federal courts and local and state government and politics.

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