Strategizing for Super Tuesday

By: Wall Street Journal

Candidates Refine Plans As They Vie for Delegates In Coast-to-Coast Contest

For weeks, presidential candidates have waged battle one state at a time. But now the race enters a new phase, with candidates delving into the complex coast-to-coast contest known as Super Tuesday, and tough decisions are being made about where and how to compete.

On Feb. 5, voters in 22 states will cast ballots. More than half of all Democratic delegates and over 40% of Republican delegates are at stake in a pair of races that remain far from settled.

Strategists must consider not just state-by-state polling, but also the widely varying rules governing each contest. Some states allow independents to vote in partisan primaries; others are closed. Some are caucuses more likely to attract activists; some are primaries where early voting is already under way. In the Democratic field, Sen. Hillary Clinton has the advantage when only registered party voters are allowed in. Sen. Barack Obama, with an extensive field organization, is expected to do well in caucuses.

For Republicans, many states are winner-take-all, so campaigns must assess if they have a shot. If not, they will skip these states altogether and focus on realistic targets. Sen. John McCain will spend one day in the South; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee will go nowhere else.

In Democratic contests, most delegates are awarded proportionate to the vote by congressional district. Some districts have an even number of delegates, meaning the two major candidates are likely to divide the spoils no matter what; but in others, there is an odd number, meaning an investment in voter phone calls and mailings could yield one extra delegate.

“The delegates at this point are so important we can’t say, ‘Oh it’s only one delegate, let’s just leave it to chance,’” said Guy Cecil, national political director for the Clinton campaign.

Candidates’ time and money, both precious, will be stretched. The two leading Democrats are better financed and are running television ads in multiple states, but among Republicans, only Mitt Romney is likely to consider a massive ad buy.

Key decisions are coming about where to travel and how long to stay over the coming week. Is it worthwhile to stage a full-blown rally or town hall meeting? Or will a news conference in an airport tarmac do?

“You don’t have a lot of time,” said Jenny Backus, a Democratic consultant unaffiliated with any campaign. “A first impression counts for a lot. How negative or positive do you want to be?”

Republicans have their last pre-Super Tuesday contest tomorrow in Florida. The results there will influence how candidates are perceived in the states that follow. If former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani does poorly, states including New York and New Jersey, where he might have had a lock, will suddenly be in play.

The map features states large and small that rarely play an important role in presidential politics. That includes the megaprizes of California and New York, both too Democratic to matter in a general election and usually too late to matter in a primary. But the campaign is also reaching tiny quarters. Both Sens. Clinton and Obama are running TV ads in Delaware, and Mr. Obama has a half dozen paid staffers in Idaho.

Each campaign has already spent $2 million in TV ads in Feb. 5 states, half of that in California alone, according to an independent estimate.

On the night of Feb. 5, the winners are likely to be reported by state. The statewide vote totals are important, even in the Democratic race, given that 35% of the party’s delegates are awarded based on those results. But the rest of the Democratic delegates are awarded by congressional district, meaning there will be microcontests even in states where one or another candidate is far ahead.

Each district typically has three to five delegates to award. A candidate needs at least 15% of the vote in the district to get any delegates. So in a race where only Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama meet that threshold, they are likely to divide the delegates evenly if there are an even number of delegates available. That makes the districts with an odd number of delegates the most valuable, because the winner will automatically get an extra.

Campaign strategists are also looking to see where it might be possible to win 59% of the vote; a victory that large gets a candidate an extra delegate even in a district with an even number.

Based on these calculations, Mrs. Clinton is targeting 60 of the 224 districts in play on Feb. 5, across 17 states, one official said. Clinton campaign officials expect they may lose Colorado and Minnesota, but they have identified districts in each state where they might pick up extra delegates. Similarly, Mr. Obama doesn’t expect to win California, but he is running ads in the San Francisco area hoping to pick up delegates in those congressional districts.

The Republican map is nearly identical but the calculations much different. Many of the states have winner-take-all rules; in those states, there is no point investing in a state that can’t be won. None of the candidates are advertising yet with the exception of a cable-television buy by Mr. Huckabee, who is trying to pivot beyond Florida, where he isn’t expected to do well.

For Super Tuesday, Mr. Huckabee plans to concentrate in Alabama, Georgia and his home state of Arkansas. The campaign also hopes to be competitive in neighboring Missouri, particularly the conservative southern, rural part of the state.

Sen. McCain plans to focus on California, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. He also will make a stop in Illinois.

For Mr. McCain, the race is moving away from his comfort zone, the one-on-one style of campaigning where he can answer questions and interact with voters. “I really would like to fly from one town hall meeting to another, rather than land in a state and have a rally at the airport hangar,” he said. But, as his advisers note, town-hall meetings take twice as long as rallies, which means hitting fewer media markets in a day.

Mr. Romney is still working through his options, hoping that a weakened Mr. Giuliani will give him a shot at northeastern states including New York and New Jersey. He is also analyzing states where the winner of each congressional district picks up Republican delegates, and is considering making a play for some in Georgia, Alabama and California, regardless of whether he can win the entire state, one of his strategists said.

Part of the goal, Mr. Romney said, is keeping opponents guessing. “Clearly it’s a bit of … a head fake there and a move in a different direction than they were expecting, but it’s all about getting delegates.”

–Alex Frangos contributed to this article.

Write to Laura Meckler at

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