- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2008

PHILADELPHIA — The Democratic presidential hopefuls braced for the nine nominating battles to come as voters went to the polls today in Pennsylvania to decide a critical round in the prolonged contest.

“We come to conclude that this race will continue until the last primary or caucus vote is cast. That’s not that far away,” Sen. Barack Obama, the national front-runner in the race, told reporters after wooing voters over breakfast at Pamela’s P&G; Diner in Pittsburgh.

PA1.jpg It was the first time in 11 days that the senator from Illinois fielded reporters’ questions and a day after brushing off inquiries about the terror group Hamas.

Mr. Obama said the nomination contest against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York helped his campaign by “building organizations that are getting tested.”

“Should I end up being the nominee, the work we’ve done in Pennsylvania will be extraordinarily helpful,” said Mr. Obama, who has predicted a victory for Mrs. Clinton in Pennsylvania, but by a margin too small to threaten his lead in nominating delegates, the number of states won and the popular vote.

Mrs. Clinton, who greeted voters at a polling site in the Philadelphia suburb of Conshohocken, said a victory today would put the onus on Mr. Obama to explain why he can’t “close the deal” with a decisive win in a big state like Pennsylvania.

“A win is a win,” Mrs. Clinton said. “With his extraordinary financial advantage, why can’t he win a state like this one? The road to the White House for a Democrat leads right through Pennsylvania to Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Mr. Obama, who will start campaigning in Indiana tonight, said Pennsylvania voters would rally behind him and help him win a general election matchup with the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

“The polling shows we can win no matter what the results [of the nominating race],” he said. “When I’m the nominee, [Pennsylvania Gov.] Ed Rendell is going to be working for me just as hard as he’s been working for Senator Clinton. There’s going to be a clear contrast between the economic message of the Democrats and the Republicans.”

Mr. Rendell, a popular political figure in the state, endorsed and campaigned relentlessly for Mrs. Clinton.

The race issue re-emerged when Mrs. Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, said on Philadelphia’s WHYY radio that Mr. Obama “played the race card” by criticizing his remarks after winning the South Carolina primary in January.

Mr. Clinton noted that the Rev. Jesse Jackson won the South Carolina primary in 1984 and 1988 but lost the Democratic nomination for the White House.

“I think that they played the race card on me,” Mr. Clinton said. “We now know, from memos from the campaign and everything, that they planned to do it all along.” Mr. Obama rejected the accusation.

“Hold on a second, he said with a chuckle. “So former President Clinton dismissed my victory in South Carolina as being similar to Jesse Jackson and he is suggesting that somehow I had something to do with it? You better ask him what he meant by that. I have no idea what he meant. These were words that came out of his mouth — not words that came out of mine.

Mrs. Clinton, asked about her husband’s remark, said Pennsylvania voters have other issues on their minds.

“The focus of the voters in Pennsylvania is solutions we have been talking about,” said the former first lady. She added that the next president will face critical issues such as Iran’s nuclear program, the war in Iraq and the fight against terrorism.

“I think voters are looking for a president who will be tough enough to do the hardest job in the world but smart enough and careful enough to do it in a way that works.”

Mr. Obama also delved into foreign policy, answering a question he avoided a day earlier about former President Jimmy Carter’s meeting with Hamas, an Islamic terrorist group whose endorsement last week Mr. Obama rejected.

“It was a bad idea for President Carter to meet with Hamas without [the group having] recognized Israel or renounced terrorism or acknowledged previous agreements,” he said. “Given that they are not heads of state, to sit down with them I think gave them a legitimacy that was unnecessary.”

Mr. Obama, who has been criticized by Mrs. Clinton and Mr. McCain for saying he would meet with leaders of rogue states such as Iran, draws a distinction between heads of state and directors of terrorist groups.

“I think it’s very important for the United States to actively engage in helping bring about negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis. That’s where our energies should go.

Primaries in Indiana and North Carolina are scheduled for May 6 and offer the largest delegate prizes remaining on the contest calendar.

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