WASHINGTON -- On the eve of primaries in North Carolina and Indiana, Barack Obama angled for an advantage on a second front yesterday, picking up pledges from two party leaders in Maryland to pull nearly even with Hillary Clinton in the race for superdelegates.
The timing of the announcement from Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Michael Cryor and Vice Chairman Lauren D. Glover reflected an effort by the Obama campaign to move the presidential nomination fight closer to an end - something they and the Clinton campaign acknowledge won't come through votes in primary states alone.
"I recognize that to do it today, prior to North Carolina and Indiana, is potentially impactful," Cryor said in an interview.
Since the campaign began, Clinton's clear edge among superdelegates - who are national convention delegates by virtue of their positions as elected and party officials - helped offset Obama's gains in primaries and caucuses. Obama, who leads in the overall delegate competition, appears on the verge of taking the superdelegate advantage, too.
As Indiana and North Carolina voters prepared to cast ballots in the biggest day left on the primary calendar, the candidates delivered last-minute pitches in both states.
A closing Clinton attack ad kept the focus on her plan for a gas-tax holiday and tried to portray Obama as out of touch with concerns of ordinary people.
"Hillary wants the oil companies to pay for the gas tax this summer - so you don't have to," said Clinton's ad. "Barack Obama wants you to keep paying; $8 billion in all."
Obama counterattacked with a video that accused the New York senator of offering "more of the same old negative politics."
Late polls showed Clinton ahead in Indiana, while Obama held a lead in North Carolina, where the contest has tightened over the past week.
Clinton has called North Carolina "a game-changer" that would "make a huge difference in what happens going forward" if she won. A leading Clinton supporter, James Carville, has said that she needs more than a tie in today's primaries to get the nomination and that winning both states would do that.
Behind those statements is the arithmetic of the nomination battle.
Obama leads in total delegates by 138, a margin that has changed little over the past two months. It isn't expected to be altered much by today's voting.
Party rules allot primary delegates on a proportional basis, making it impossible for Clinton to overtake Obama in pledged delegates during the last eight primaries. If she and Obama divide the remaining delegates evenly, she would need to pick up about two-thirds of the uncommitted superdelegates to gain the nomination.
To bring superdelegates her way, Clinton is arguing that she would be the stronger candidate against Republican John McCain in the fall. Many of the superdelegates "are beginning to focus very much on who can bring in the so-called purple or swing states, such as Ohio, New Mexico, Nevada, Arkansas, Florida," Harold Ickes, a top Clinton campaign aide, said on MSNBC.
Obama, after suffering a bout of bad publicity over his controversial former pastor and watching Clinton's economic message resonate with voters, has been rolling out superdelegate announcements in several states. In addition to the Maryland announcement yesterday, a third superdelegate, from Oklahoma, publicly declared her support.
The latest endorsements bring Obama to within 14 superdelegates of Clinton, out of more than 500 who have announced their position, according to the Associated Press.
About 220 superdelegates have yet to commit publicly, though both campaigns maintain lists of undeclared supporters. According to one party insider, Obama has at least 50 unannounced superdelegates in reserve, and his campaign could decide to release enough names this week to leap ahead of Clinton in the superdelegate race.
Several superdelegates who previously announced support for Clinton have recently indicated, either publicly or privately, that they would shift their allegiance to Obama.
In Maryland, which Obama won by a landslide in the Feb. 12 primary, Clinton leads in superdelegates by nine to six, with 11 undeclared. Among those who have yet to publicly commit are Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin and Rep. John Sarbanes of Baltimore.
Cryor said that Obama had shown "courage and discipline" during the primary fight and that the Illinois senator's actions "require me to show some courage as well." He said he had remained publicly neutral through Saturday's state party meeting at which additional delegates were selected.
Cryor was Gov. Martin O'Malley's choice to head the Maryland party. O'Malley, an early Clinton superdelegate, was not troubled by Cryor's decision and plans to continue working on behalf of Clinton, said Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for the governor.
Glover said she based her decision to endorse Obama on his lead in pledged delegates and popular votes, calling him the best candidate to "move our country past where we are now."
When pledged delegates and superdelegates are added together, Obama has 1,742 delegates to Clinton's 1,602, according to the Associated Press. It takes 2,025 to clinch the nomination, although the number could change if party officials reach agreement on seating delegates from Michigan and Florida, whose primaries didn't count because they violated party rules.
Obama, who has repeatedly failed to knock Clinton from the race, has indicated that he expects the contest to continue until the final primaries June 3.
"I'm pretty confident that we will be competing in all those contests and Senator Clinton will be as well," Obama said on NBC.
Clinton campaign officials, in a conference call with reporters, said they expect the race to be very close, after all the votes are counted June 3.
"We believe that we will have come out of this final period of the campaign with some wind at our backs and some real momentum from March, April, May and June," said strategist Geoff Garin.