Clinton digs in for pivotal Ohio contest

The Baltimore Sun

NEW PHILADELPHIA, Ohio -- After contests in more than 30 states, Hillary Clinton's teetering presidential hopes may depend on just one: Ohio.

Barack Obama has erased Clinton's double-digit lead in this state heading into Tuesday's crucial primary. But no one is predicting an Obama blowout.

"Ohio is different," said Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, the most prominent Clinton backer in the state.

Exactly how different won't be clear until the votes are counted here, and in Texas, Rhode Island and Vermont on the same day, which could decide the Democratic nomination.

There are signs that Ohio may yet swing behind Obama, once last-minute deciders make up their minds. At least one recent statewide poll showed a virtual dead heat; others gave Clinton a slight edge.

Winning the nation's seventh-most-populous state may well allow Clinton to keep going, though the delegate math remains daunting and even her husband has said that she needs to win Texas, too. Still, her campaign has started shaping an argument for pressing ahead at least until Pennsylvania, a place quite similar to Ohio, holds the next big Democratic primary on April 22.

Clinton has lost 11 straight contests since Feb. 5 and fallen significantly behind Obama in major national polls. But a number of factors could help her eke out a victory in Ohio, according to party strategists and independent analysts.

"It's very tempting to say Ohio's had a hard time with change," said Bill Burges, a Democratic consultant in Cleveland.

Vacant storefronts and shuttered factories are familiar sights in this state, hit hard by manufacturing job losses over the past quarter-century and with a jobless rate above the national average. Economic woes haven't led to a massive exodus; Ohio has a higher portion of residents living in the state where they were born than any major state that's already voted this year.

"If there is any state that needs change at the national level, it's this one," said former Democratic National Chairman David Wilhelm, who managed Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign but recently endorsed Obama.

But Wilhelm, who runs a rural-development venture capital firm in Athens, Ohio, acknowledged that "Ohioans have a degree of skepticism about new things. ... This is not a state that gravitates toward celebrity."

Then there is the matter of "stickiness." Ohioans are "sticky," he said. "It's not easy to move them. ... People here are reluctant to move too quickly."

They stuck with Bill Clinton, who carried the state twice and made frequent visits during his presidency. He has campaigned harder for his wife here than in most other states, making more than 20 stops since late January.

His final three-day swing, which ended yesterday, generated wild enthusiasm in small towns like New Philadelphia, in eastern Ohio's Amish country.

"You have her fate in your hands," Clinton told a Friday night crowd of about 900 in the gym on Kent State University's Tuscarawas Campus.

Minutes earlier, at the same event, Strickland predicted a Clinton revival on Tuesday.

"For all those conservative pundits who have danced on Hillary Clinton's political grave, we will say to them, 'She has come back!'" he shouted, to cheers. "And I am so glad Ohio is going to do it."

Clinton has the support of a bevy of local and state elected officials, as well as John Glenn, the former senator and astronaut, who appeared in a Clinton campaign ad and at events with the candidate and her husband.

Her most important backer is Strickland, a popular governor who campaigned vigorously with her last week on his home turf, the economically downtrodden Ohio River valley. The region is much closer, socially and geographically, to the rural South than to the big cities of the Midwest.

Clinton's heavy investment of time in sparsely populated parts of the state - a strategy that some Democrats privately question - appears designed to run up her vote margins in areas where white, working-class Democrats dominate and Obama remains a stranger.

"We really don't know what [Obama] is going to do. He's new," said Clinton supporter Joseph Graham, an unemployed, 30-year-old Navy veteran with a wispy beard and a wool cap pulled down over his ears. "It seems like he's counting on the black vote."

Hilary Clinton, smiling and sounding upbeat, in spite of facing possible elimination this week, promised Ohio voters at campaign events that she'd "be a fighter and a champion for all of you."

Negative tactics that backfired on her elsewhere have largely been absent from her campaign here, except for an angry outburst last weekend ("Shame on you, Barack Obama") over mailings by his campaign that attacked her positions on trade and health care.

Independents and Republicans can vote in the Democratic primary - an advantage for Obama in other states, including Wisconsin, where he won by 17 points. But some analysts think Ohio more closely resembles Missouri, a state he barely won.

"It's more difficult for momentum to matter in Ohio, because it's a very diverse state with multiple media markets," said John C. Green, a University of Akron political scientist who predicts a Clinton victory.

One recent statewide poll showed Clinton and Obama splitting the votes of those under 30, a stark difference from other primary states, where he won that group by margins of better than two-to-one.

"Obama may not run up the same majorities among younger voters in Ohio," said Green, because, compared with those in other states, they are less likely to be in college or have gone to college.

At the other end of the spectrum, voters over 65 - the age group that has supported Clinton more heavily than any other - make up a larger share of the electorate in Ohio than in most big primary states. So do Catholics, who continue to back Clinton over Obama, though more narrowly than before, and could cast nearly one in three Democratic votes.

A new national survey by the Pew Research Center found that older, white Democrats and lower-income and less-educated Democrats are more resistant to Obama's candidacy, presumably because of race. Overall, one in five white Democrats said they would vote for Republican John McCain if Obama were the nominee - more than twice the number who would switch if Clinton headed the ticket, according to the poll.

Sharon Mullins, 44, of Pine Grove, Ohio, who works part time at a local gas station and is an avid Clinton backer, says she might not vote at all if Obama is the nominee. His "name bothers me. It might as well be Saddam Hussein," she said, referring to Obama's middle name, Hussein.

Clinton supporter Matt Malone, 34, of Deering, Ohio, a disabled industrial worker, will vote for Obama in the fall "if I have to." He believes the news media have been unfair to Clinton and are refusing to give Obama "a hard time, because they're afraid of being called racists."

With the Super Tuesday crush behind them, the candidates have had almost two weeks to campaign in Ohio and the other three March 4 primary states. More time on the trail has worked to Obama's advantage elsewhere; as voters have gotten to know him, he's pulled them away from Clinton, a pattern that is being repeated here.

He's also outspending Clinton by at least two to one on TV and radio ads, a significant edge in a state of nearly 11.5 million people, where mass media are the primary means of communicating with voters.

Long-simmering anger over the North American Free Trade Agreement, which President Clinton signed and his wife supported, remains a sore spot with some Ohio voters. Clinton now criticizes the deal and, like Obama, has threatened to reopen it, but the issue is expected to help Obama.

In Texas, the other big contest, Clinton is trying to raise questions about Obama's ability to handle a national security crisis. Polls there show a close race; Obama is favored to win Vermont, while Rhode Island could be closer.

Clinton herself has never said she needs to win both Texas and Ohio to continue her campaign, but the Obama camp contends that she would come under pressure from senior Democratic officials to quit if she only wins Ohio.

"She wants to be able to claim a win," said Gerald Austin, an Ohio strategist who ran the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson's 1988 presidential campaign. "If she wins the popular vote in Ohio by one vote, she'll claim a win. It's possible."

Paul.west@baltsun.com

Delegate count

With more than 350 delegates up for grabs Tuesday in Texas, Ohio, Vermont and Rhode Island, here is where the the top Democratic presidential candidates stand, including superdelegates:

Barack Obama: 1,385

Hillary Clinton: 1,276

Delegates needed to nominate: 2,025

[Source: Associated Press]

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