Obama Closes In on Clinton As McCain Lengthens Lead


By: Wall Street Journal

In California Race, Poll Puts Democrats Nearly in Dead Heat
By JACKIE CALMES

On the eve of tomorrow’s near-national contest for each party’s presidential nominee, Democrat Hillary Clinton has lost much of her longtime polling lead over Barack Obama both nationally and in grand prize California, while Republican John McCain has surged ahead for a potentially decisive edge.

Tomorrow’s votes could crown Sen. McCain, the Arizona senator, his party’s presumptive nominee. The Democrats’ battle more likely will grind on, since their party rules award convention delegates proportionate to candidates’ votes in each state rather than giving them all to the winner.

Sen. Obama, of Illinois, and Sen. Clinton, of New York, could battle to a draw. But many Democratic activists say Sen. Obama stands to gain momentum, given his advantage in states voting after tomorrow, his campaign’s financial strength and his ability to withstand the Clinton machine. That could matter to the party’s “super delegates” — uncommitted Democratic party leaders in each state who aren’t up for grabs in the nomination contests but who could ultimately help determine the winner.

Sen. McCain now has a 2-to-1 lead nationally over chief rival Mitt Romney, according to new polls from Gallup, the Pew Research Center and the Washington Post-ABC News. On the Democratic side, they show Sen. Obama has shaved Sen. Clinton’s once-formidable national advantage to single digits.

Such polls are hardly predictive, as shown last month when no major surveys foresaw Sen. Clinton’s victory in New Hampshire’s primary. Then, as now, state and national polls show a large number of undecided voters in both parties, making predictions dicey.

Last month, when the candidates were campaigning in one state at a time, national polls were meaningless for anticipating what voters in New Hampshire or Iowa thought. But with nearly half the states voting tomorrow, national polls can provide a snapshot of the electorate.

The number, size and coast-to-coast range of states voting on “Super Tuesday” makes tomorrow unprecedented in the history of the presidential-nominating process. Primaries or caucuses will be held in 24 states, compared with 10 states on the biggest voting day in 2004. Both parties have votes in 19 states, while Democrats caucus in three more and Republicans in two. Just over half of Democrats’ 3,253 pledged delegates are at stake, and 41% of Republicans’ 2,380 total.

The battlefield is bigger than it has been for the November general election in recent decades. The general-election campaigns have come down to a dozen or so competitive battleground states, since the rest tend to favor one party or the other. In tomorrow’s intra-party contests, every state counts as the major candidates seek more delegates. With just days to campaign, and the cost of advertising, the candidates’ stamina and campaign budgets are being tested.

“There’s never been anything like it,” says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, who hasn’t committed to either candidate. “And there’s the sheer economics of it, of how campaigns approach their deployment.”

The pileup is a consequence of other states’ frustration with the influence of the geographically balanced foursome — Iowa and New Hampshire, and, more recently, South Carolina and Nevada — whose early-voting status is blessed by party rules. The others over the past year rushed to reschedule their primaries and caucuses on Feb. 5, the earliest date that both parties allow. But the crush blunted the influence sought by the states, which hoped to get candidates to pay attention to their particular issues in return for votes.

California is the exception. Its huge delegate total — 370 for Democrats, or about 18% of the number of delegates needed to win the nomination, and 173 for Republicans, or just under 15% — makes the Golden State truly golden in the nominating race for the first time in three decades.

The Field Poll, a prominent California poll, yesterday had Sen. Clinton, who formerly had a huge lead, in a 36%-to-34% statistical dead heat with Sen. Obama. Sen. McCain has an eight-point edge over his next closest competitor, Mr. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor. Significantly, the poll has Sen. McCain statistically tied with Sen. Clinton in a hypothetical matchup, suggesting Democrats’ lock on the state and its 55 electoral votes — critical to their hopes for the White House — could be picked. Sen. Obama bests Sen. McCain in a hypothetical face-off by seven percentage points.

Since tomorrow’s state contests are party affairs, the candidates are stumping in places their party nominees rarely do for general elections. For example, Sen. McCain ended yesterday in heavily Democratic Massachusetts — showing strength in former Gov. Romney’s home state — while Sen. Obama Saturday drew an estimated 13,000 to a rally in overwhelmingly Republican Idaho.

In a year in which Democrats have enthusiasm on their side against a Republican Party demoralized by an unpopular president and the war in Iraq, the Obama campaign argues that his appeal to new voters among the young, minorities and independents could put states in play for Democrats that rarely are, including Southern states such as Georgia and Alabama where black voters are a significant share of the electorate. The Clinton campaign counters that she is drawing new female voters.

The vastness of the playing field has spawned new tactics. Sen. Clinton tonight hosts a national “town hall” discussion to be broadcast on the Internet and cable TV. Sen. Obama, exploiting his huge financial edge, has spent $11 million on 17 Super Tuesday states and six more states voting in coming weeks, including $250,000 for last night’s Super Bowl, according to the campaign. The Republicans are too financially strapped to run many national ads, even the resurgent Sen. McCain; Mr. Romney is digging deeper into his personal wealth.

Sens. Clinton and Obama remain from what began as a nine-person Democratic race. Four of the original 10 Republicans survive, but Sen. McCain’s chief rival is Mr. Romney. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has been siphoning conservatives’ votes from Mr. Romney. Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the antiwar libertarian, has a small following, though Republicans say he could win tomorrow’s caucuses in Alaska.

Democrats

Regardless of states won, many Democratic strategists expect Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama to roughly split the delegates tomorrow, with each reaping roughly 800 toward the 2,025 majority needed for the nomination.

“Proportional representation” will “make it impossible for somebody to pull ahead,” says Democratic consultant Tad Devine, who is uncommitted. Nevada’s caucuses last month were a case in point: Sen. Clinton won overall, but Sen. Obama got more delegates under Nevada’s formula since his support was more geographically dispersed.

The Clinton camp’s best-case scenario is to become the perceived winner by capturing majorities in California; Sen. Clinton’s home state of New York and next-door New Jersey; former home state Arkansas; Tennessee, which has fewer black voters than other Southern states; and in at least one of a group of states where Sen. Obama is competitive — Connecticut, Massachusetts, Arizona and Missouri.

Her strength remains women voters, and about 60% or more of Democratic primary and caucus voters are female. She also counts on Latino voters in several states where they are a significant population, notably California. Yesterday, former President Clinton, Sen. Clinton’s husband, watched the Super Bowl in New Mexico with Gov. Bill Richardson, the Hispanic governor who hasn’t yet endorsed anyone since leaving the presidential race last month.

The Obama forces aren’t conceding the Latino vote. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, who is going all out for Sen. Obama, says, “I don’t think we can measure what the Latino vote is” because excitement is so high that many first-time voters are likely to turn out.

Sen. Obama could well win more states overall — one way to define victory — though that would include the smallest ones delegate-wise. He is expected to win big in home state Illinois, which is the third-richest in delegates with 153 after California and New York; in Georgia and perhaps Alabama, and in most of the seven states holding caucuses instead of primaries. Democrats say he has a grass-roots organizational advantage that is critical in getting voters to caucuses, which are more time-consuming than simply voting by secret ballot.

Both candidates already are looking beyond tomorrow. Mr. Clinton has campaigned in Ohio, which votes March 4. Sen. Obama is campaigning and advertising in Washington state, Nebraska, Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, which vote later this month.

“The longer it drags out, the better it is for Barack,” says former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, an Obama campaigner.

Republicans

Mr. Romney won Maine’s small Republican caucuses over the weekend, but that isn’t seen as a harbinger. Sen. McCain sealed his front-runner status with last week’s Florida victory, and — despite conservatives’ undying suspicions of the maverick senator — establishment Republicans in Super Tuesday states have been jumping aboard his bandwagon.

About half the states are winner-take-all for delegates, as Republican rules allow, and Sen. McCain expects to win the lion’s share. That includes a combined 183 from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. The tri-state’s winner-take-all rules were drawn to benefit former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, but he dropped out of the race after losing in Florida, in part because Sen. McCain’s strength in Mr. Giuliani’s home base was already evident in polls.

“It’s hard to see how somebody would overtake him at this point. He’s got the momentum, and the national name I.D.” that you need for a national primary, says former McCain campaign manager Terry Nelson. McCain adviser Steve Schmidt sees “a very, very good night” tomorrow.

Florida also showed that Sen. McCain could win in states with contests open only to Republicans, and closed to the independents whose support he has counted on in past contests. Two-thirds of the states voting tomorrow allow only registered Republicans to vote in that party’s contests, including in California. Mr. Romney still argues he has an advantage over Sen. McCain when independents are excluded. He is doing his best to persuade conservatives that he’s essentially in a two-man race with Sen. McCain for “the heart and soul of the Republican Party.”

But Mr. Huckabee is refusing to give Mr. Romney a two-man race in fact, and draws support that otherwise would more likely go to Mr. Romney than Sen. McCain. Mr. Huckabee is campaigning mostly among fellow Christian conservatives, especially in the South — in Georgia, Alabama and his home state of Arkansas.

“One of the challenges we do have right now,” Romney spokesman Kevin Madden says, “is making the case to those folks that are voting for Huckabee…that you’re voting for someone who’s not going to win the nomination” and “if we’re going to keep this a center-right party, that you vote for Gov. Romney.”

Write to Jackie Calmes at jackie.calmes@wsj.com

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