- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2008

PHILADELPHIA — Undecided Democratic primary voters who wait until Election Day before choosing a candidate have overwhelmingly gone with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton — a trend that she needs to continue in tomorrow’s crucial Pennsylvania primary to claim a decisive victory.

Mrs. Clinton of New York bested rival Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois among voters making last-minute decisions by an average six-point margin in previous primaries, exit polls show, and about 9 percent remain undecided here.

“On Election Day, they’ve turned to the candidate they feel is a known quantity — Clinton,” said Proloy Bhattacharyya of USA Election Polls, who studies the exit-poll data. “And a large percentage of undecided are going to the polls [this year].”

He said the effect should lessen if Mr. Obama begins to look more like the probable Democratic nominee.

And tomorrow should provide that test. Mr. Obama has closed Mrs. Clinton’s one-time 20-point advantage to about five points, but the last-minute deciders could make the difference between a squeaker for Mrs. Clinton and the double-digit win her campaign needs to begin to erode Mr. Obama’s lead in pledged delegates and overtake his thin lead in the popular vote.

Mr. Obama must hold on as front-runner in the popular vote — he leads by nearly 704,000 — to counter Mrs. Clinton’s case that her wins in big states demonstrate her prowess in a general election matchup with presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

“Obama has charisma, but he is also inexperienced,” said Andrew McCloskey, 38, an undecided Democrat in Philadelphia, who said he was leaning toward Mrs. Clinton.

“I’ll make up my mind in the [voting] booth,” he said.

In the March 4 primary in Ohio, which Mrs. Clinton won 54 percent to 44 percent, about 12 percent of voters made their decision on Election Day, and they went for Mrs. Clinton by an 11-point margin, 54 percent to 43 percent, MSNBC exit polls show.

Even in Mr. Obama’s home state of Illinois, where Mrs. Clinton lost 64 percent to 32 percent, exit polls show that she captured 50 percent of voters who did not make up their minds until Election Day, compared with 42 percent for Mr. Obama.

About 13 percent of voters in the Illinois primary said they were undecided before they went to the polls.

The Obama campaign — which is outspending Mrs. Clinton 2-to-1 and relentlessly hitting her with TV ads and robo-calls — could knock her out of the race by beating her or finishing closely on her heels in Pennsylvania.

But Clinton campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson disagreed about the importance of winning big in the Keystone State.

“I think a victory by one vote is a victory,” he said. “Senator Obama … is doing everything he can to pour money into this state to win this state — not to do well in this state, but to win this state. If he fails to win in this state, it would be yet another big state — a big, swing state — that he has failed to win, and it will reflect very poorly on his chances going forward.”

Leslie Miller, spokeswoman for the Obama Pennsylvania campaign, said Mrs. Clinton’s campaign was denying the obvious by saying a narrow victory would suffice.

“Senator Clinton needs a blowout victory on Tuesday to meet expectations,” she said. “Meanwhile, Senator Obama is pleased with our campaign’s progress in building support among Pennsylvania voters of all ages.”

Mr. Obama has 1,648 nominating delegates to Mrs. Clinton’s 1,508, according to the RealClearPolitics.com tally of pledged delegates won in primaries and superdelegates who have announced their support for a candidate.

In the remaining 10 contests, neither Mr. Obama nor Mrs. Clinton is likely to reach the 2,025 delegates needed to capture the nomination.

While Mr. Obama’s campaign events this weekend were filled with cheering true believers, many Pennsylvanians gathered on the outer edges of his rallies and voter forums were still torn between the two Democrats.

They said they were fine with either candidate getting the nomination, though some were swayed when they met the candidates as they crisscrossed the Keystone State.

“I’m still not sure. I’ll see what my heart has to say on Tuesday,” said Democrat Karen Higgins Coopersberg, whose dinner plans were sidetracked when Mr. Obama toured Main Street yesterday in Bethlehem. “It’s nice to see him amongst the people.”

Christina Bellantoni contributed to this report from Bethlehem, Pa.

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