- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Photo: On the campaign trail The Democratic presidential candidates are in a dead heat entering today’s vote in Wisconsin, where Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is angling to stop Sen. Barack Obama’s ninth consecutive primary win.

Mrs. Clinton, of New York, this week took the lead in a Wisconsin poll for the first time since early December, topping Mr. Obama 49 percent to 43 percent in an American Research Group survey — though her campaign tried to keep expectations low.

“The Obama campaign predicted victory in Wisconsin weeks ago and declared the race all but over last week,” Clinton campaign spokesman Blake Zeff said. “We will do the best we can to do as well as we can and then it’s on to Ohio and Texas.”

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe gave an equally reserved assessment, saying Wisconsin is “a very strong state for Clinton [and] we will do as well as we can.”

As in several recent polls that show Mr. Obama, of Illinois, up by about four percentage points, Mrs. Clinton’s lead was just outside the survey’s margin of error and a big slice of the electorate — 7 percent — remained undecided.

Other polls reported as much as 11 percent of voters undecided, and a new Public Policy Poll survey taken over the weekend gave Mr. Obama a 13-point advantage, 53 to 40.

“This is still a close race,” Mr. Obama told reporters at a campaign stop in Ohio, the site of March 4 primaries along with Texas.

On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain of Arizona looked to put the nomination out of reach of his chief rival, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, with wins today in Wisconsin and Washington state. He leads in polls over Mr. Huckabee and long-shot candidate Rep. Ron Paul.

Mr. McCain collected the endorsement yesterday of former President George H.W. Bush, who said he disagreed with criticism from within the party that Mr. McCain is not conservative enough.

“Few men walking among us have sacrificed so much in the cause of human freedom, and I am happy to help this remarkable patriot carry our party’s banner forward,” Mr. Bush said.

Mr. McCain called for Republicans to join together but also reached out to independents — an area where has had better luck. He hopes to wrap up the nomination with the Ohio and Texas primaries, and then turn his attention full time to preparing for his eventual Democratic opponent.

Mr. Obama looked ahead to a long campaign, fighting state by state to win pledged delegates and convince the Democratic Party — and the crucial superdelegates likely to decide the nomination — that he is best positioned to win the White House.

“As many victories as we’ve had, we haven’t won the nomination yet,” Mr. Obama said. “We haven’t won the general election yet and, most importantly, we haven’t made a difference in the lives of workers here in Ohio yet. And that’s the ultimate victory.”

Neither campaigned in person for today’s Hawaii Democratic caucus, but Mr. Obama, who was born there, is a strong favorite to win.

The two faced off in Wisconsin over barely distinguishable health care plans and nearly identical economic plans. They also traded jabs in TV ads that experts said hurt Mrs. Clinton more.

Sarah A. Fulton, political science professor at Texas A&M; University, said the Clinton campaign appeared “a little desperate” in its TV spot that criticized Mr. Obama for ducking debates, despite 18 previous debates and two more this month in Texas and Ohio.

“This doesn’t seem to me to be a very compelling or credible issue that is gaining much traction,” said Mrs. Fulton, who specializes in political campaigns and the role of women in American politics.

Another scholar said the ad played into the hands of Mr. Obama, who presents himself as the anti-establishment candidate.

Stephen Dinan and Christina Bellantoni contributed to this report.

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