WASHINGTON - Barack Obama heads back to the scene of his breakthrough triumph today, hoping to use Iowa as a backdrop to announce that he has gained enough pledged delegates to all but clinch the Democratic presidential nomination.
The Illinois senator was looking for a split decision in two primary states - polls indicate that he leads in Oregon and trails in Kentucky - that aides predicted would put him ahead to stay among delegates elected in caucuses and primaries.
"When the votes are counted in Oregon and Kentucky, we could secure a majority of delegates elected by the voters," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said yesterday.
"A clear majority of elected delegates will send an unmistakable message: The people have spoken, and they are ready for change."
The Illinois senator plans to hold a rally for tonight in Des Moines, where his victory in caucuses Jan. 3 first signaled that he could defeat front-runner Hillary Clinton.
Clinton's camp called Obama's plan arrogant and presumptuous.
"Senator Obama's plan to declare himself the Democratic nominee tomorrow night in Iowa is a slap in the face to the millions of voters in the remaining primary states and to Senator Clinton's 17 million supporters," Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said yesterday. "Premature victory laps and false declarations of victory are unwarranted. Declaring 'mission accomplished' does not make it so."
"You can declare yourself anything, but if you don't have the votes, it doesn't matter," Clinton said yesterday in a satellite interview with an Oregon television station before a campaign appearance in Kentucky.
The New York senator's campaign said Obama won't able to clinch the nomination today even if he secures the majority of pledged delegates.
"There is no scenario under the rules of the Democratic National Committee by which Senator Obama will be able to claim the nomination tomorrow night," Wolfson said.
As of yesterday, Obama had 1,915 delegates - elected and unelected - toward the 2,026 needed to take the nomination, according to an Associated Press tally. He gained two more unelected superdelegates Monday, Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and Washington state Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz. Clinton had 1,721.
Obama needs 116 more delegates to clinch; Clinton needs 305.
Remaining to be decided in primaries are 189 delegates, 51 in Kentucky and 52 in Oregon today; 55 in Puerto Rico on June 1; 15 in South Dakota on June 3; and 16 in Montana, also on June 3.
About 185 unelected superdelegates also have yet to say whom they'll support.
If Obama emerges from today's voting with the majority of elected delegates, it could be a powerful weapon in attracting uncommitted superdelegates.
Obama's announcement today is "his way of putting pressure on the superdelegates," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Iowa. "But they've heard it already. They're already expecting it.
"And it's his way of throwing some sand in the lens of the camera Tuesday night when he's getting shellacked in Kentucky."
Obama trails Clinton in Kentucky by an average of 29 percentage points, according to a tally by the Web site realclearpolitics.com. He leads in Oregon by an average of 12 points.
Clinton has also tried to make the case that if the results of disputed primaries in Michigan and Florida are included, she would lead Obama narrowly in the overall popular vote. Clinton won both contests, but the results were voided because they took place in January in violation of Democratic Party rules. Obama and three other Democrats, but not Clinton, took their names off the Michigan ballot after all the Democratic candidates agreed not to campaign there or in Florida.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.