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Big day looms for all parties in tight field

LOS ANGELES — LOS ANGELES -- With the Democratic presidential contest tightening, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are throwing everything they've got into a fight to tilt the Super Tuesday playing field to their advantage.

Clinton, who appears to hold the upper hand, will return on election eve to the place she launched her candidacy: the Internet. She'll take questions at a "virtual town hall meeting" on her campaign Web site, appealing directly to a younger, wired electorate that is helping propel her rival's rise.

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Obama portrays himself as the candidate of the future, but he is relying on old-fashioned political endorsements to stoke his momentum. He dispatched Sen. Edward M. Kennedy to rouse Latinos, a group of voters that Clinton seemed to have locked away.

Those role reversals are only a small part of an unprecedented push by the candidates ahead of the biggest primary day in U.S. history. No move appears to be too minor if it can yield votes and, more importantly, delegates.

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For more than a year, politicians were convinced that Super Tuesday would decide the presidential nominees, and that the general election campaign would start this week. But the tumultuous events of the past month have changed that.

In the Democratic race, "no one is likely to gain a decisive advantage," said strategist Tad Devine, a veteran of past nomination fights. "Tuesday will begin the second phase of the race, not the last phase."

The candidates will immediately head for another round of caucuses next weekend, followed by the Potomac primaries in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia on Feb. 12. That could be Obama's firewall, if Clinton prevails this week.

Among Republicans, what once was a far more chaotic contest now seems to be reaching a climax.

John McCain is poised to take command of his party's race, according to Republican politicians and recent opinion surveys. Nationally, the latest Gallup tracking poll showed him with a 20-point edge over Mitt Romney.

More importantly, McCain leads in more than a dozen Super Tuesday states, including the largest ones, polls show. Victories there would give him an all but insurmountable advantage.

While McCain pulls away, his Democratic counterparts face a different dynamic.

Clinton's lead over Obama has been cut in half to seven points nationally, a statistical tie, according to the latest Gallup tracking poll, after his landslide victory in South Carolina last week and John Edwards' withdrawal.

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More than half the delegates needed to win the nomination will be awarded on Feb. 5, but Democratic rules make it extremely difficult for either candidate to gain an overwhelming advantage that day.

Both sides have said that bragging rights will go to whoever gets the most delegates.

"The picture will be very clear on the morning of Feb. 6 in the number of delegates we've won. There won't be much room for spin. The facts will be known," said David Plouffe, the Obama campaign manager.

Public perceptions will also be shaped by the network TV maps that light up on election night for either Clinton or Obama in the 22 states with Democratic contests.

"That message is very powerful," said Devine, because it will convey the idea, for the first time, that the candidate who wins the most states is a leader on a nationwide scale.

With that map apparently in mind, Obama made campaign stops yesterday in three states, including Idaho, one of the smallest states to vote this week. He will campaign today in Delaware, which awards just 15 of the 1,678 delegates at stake on Tuesday.

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Clinton also touched down in three states yesterday. She held a rally in East Los Angeles, zeroing in on Hispanic voters.

She and Obama were to take questions last night from young people on MTV, the same network where her husband, as president, once answered the question: "Boxers or briefs?"

Facing what amounts to a national primary, the candidates are using every tool at their disposal to reach undecided voters and turn out supporters.

Clinton is drawing on a stable of surrogates led by Bill Clinton and daughter Chelsea, who has taken on a growing public role in recent weeks.

Obama has answered with Kennedy and his niece, Caroline Kennedy, along with a growing number of elected officials, such as Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona, whose endorsement has helped make that state more competitive.

Oprah Winfrey, who played to huge crowds with Obama earlier in the campaign, will make an appearance on his behalf in California today.

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Obama has put a premium on field operations, and his campaign has 90 campaign offices in the Feb. 5 states, said Temo Figueroa, his national field director, some in communities that seldom see a presidential campaign.

In the air wars, Obama, who is setting new records for fundraising, has outspent Clinton on TV and radio in the Feb. 5 states. Playing catch-up with Latinos, he's aiming TV and radio ads at Spanish-speaking Democrats in California and other states.

Clinton is responding with her own Hispanic media blitz, including a new ad that describes her as "our friend" and shows her cuddling a Latino baby. Her surrogates include Dolores Huerta, who helped Caesar Chavez lead the farm workers union.

Her campaign will air one hour of the "town hall" sessions on the Hallmark channel, which has a largely female audience. She'll also appear on David Letterman's late-night show tomorrow evening.

More than half of the Super Tuesday delegates are concentrated in six states, and Clinton is heavily favored in two of them, New York and New Jersey. Obama, though, may get a bigger share of delegates in his home state of Illinois than Clinton does in her adopted state. He's also favored in Georgia, the largest Southern test, and endorsements for Obama from Kennedy and Sen. John Kerry could make Massachusetts close.

That leaves California, "the super state on Super Tuesday," as Ann Lewis, a senior Clinton adviser, put it, with more delegates than any other.

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Bill Clinton will campaign for his wife today in this state, which he courted assiduously during his presidency, with scores of visits during his time in office.

"The brand name Clinton is really powerful here," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant in Los Angeles.

Obama's emergence, however, has caused some Democratic voters to think about a newer product.

"I started out in the beginning totally in Hillary's camp," said Donna Elliott, 50, a Los Angeles pediatrician, who is now undecided. She calls herself "a Bill fan" but worries that the "Clinton political machine" has gotten too heavy-handed and adds that Kennedy's endorsement of Obama was "huge. It made me pause."

California Democratic chairman Art Torres thinks Clinton will carry the state, but he said that Kennedy's backing will help Obama cut into her huge advantage with Hispanics, especially among older, working-class voters.

Bob Mulholland, an adviser to the California Democratic Party, said whoever wins California will be "on the way to the nomination."

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But with polls showing Clinton's lead eroding, it may be impossible for anyone to claim a clear victory Tuesday night, if the election is close. It will be Wednesday, or later, before hundreds of thousands of last-minute absentee and paper ballots are counted, he said.

At the same time, early voting may have helped Clinton. About half the Democratic primary votes will likely be cast in advance, in person and by mail, starting weeks ago, before Obama began to eat into her support and Edwards left the race.

Paul.west@baltsun.com



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