Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama last night won the Wisconsin primary and the Hawaii caucus, setting the stage for a March 4 showdown with wounded Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in delegate-rich Texas and Ohio.

After banking a victory in a swing Midwestern state by cutting into Mrs. Clinton’s previous strength among female and blue-collar white voters, Mr. Obama won the caucus in Hawaii where he grew up, a tenth victory that makes Texas and Ohio must-wins for Mrs. Clinton to salvage her campaign. Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain inched closer to the nomination, winning the Wisconsin and Washington primaries with the decisive margins he needed after surprising losses to Gov. Mike Huckabee in Louisiana and Kansas and a closer-than-expected win in Virginia.

Wisconsin exit polls suggested that Mr. Obama continued his streak by pulling voters away from Mrs. Clinton, in what could be an early indicator of how the Democrats will fare in upcoming states that boast a working-class electorate.

“I think we’ve achieved liftoff here,” Mr. Obama said in Houston, going on to thank Wisconsin voters “for their friendship and their support and their extraordinary civic pride.”

He hinted at the protracted battle ahead: “The change we seek is still months and miles away, and we need the state of Texas to help us get there.”

With 86 percent of the Wisconsin precincts reporting, Mr. Obama had won 58 percent to Mrs. Clinton’s 41 percent amid high voter turnout. For the Republicans, Mr. McCain had won 54 percent to Mr. Huckabee’s 37 percent.

The 94 delegates up for grabs in Wisconsin and yesterday’s caucuses in Hawaii will have minimal impact on the run to the 2,025 the Democratic candidates need for the nomination, but 370 delegates are at stake on March 4 when voters in Texas, Ohio, Vermont and Rhode Island hold contests. With 45 percent of the Washington precincts reporting, Mr. McCain had won 48 percent of the vote to Mr. Huckabee’s 21 percent. It’s Super Tuesday Part II, since the Feb. 5 contests did not end the Clinton-Obama race as many pollsters and campaign staffers had predicted. “These are real battlegrounds,” said Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson.

Mr. McCain and Mrs. Clinton, both campaigning last night in Ohio, each painted Mr. Obama as less experienced in the face of global threats. They also both ridiculed the Illinois senator as offering little more than oratory.

The former first lady did not mention her loss in Wisconsin but framed the race as a “choice” between someone who is ready and someone who isn’t. She said she would be prepared to meet “new threats and new opportunities … without on-the-job training.”

“We can’t just have speeches, we’ve got to have solutions,” the New York Democrat said. “The best words in the world aren’t enough unless you match them with action.

“One of us is ready to be commander in chief in a dangerous world. … Finally, one of us has faced serious Republican opposition in the past. And one of us is ready to do it again,” she said. “Both Senator Obama and I would make history. But only one of us is ready on Day One to be commander in chief, ready to manage our economy, and ready to defeat the Republicans.”

The cable networks chose to cut away from Mrs. Clinton only a few minutes into her speech as Mr. Obama took the stage in Houston’s Toyota Center, and carried his entire speech. This sparked heated criticism on the Internet that both Mr. Obama and the stations committed a breach of etiquette.

Mr. McCain, of Arizona, who topped his chief rival, Mr. Huckabee of Arkansas, and also beat Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, similarly knocked Mr. Obama in his victory speech.

He warned voters against being “deceived by an eloquent but empty call for change,” and specifically attacked Mr. Obama’s foreign policy proposals to unilaterally attack in Pakistan and to negotiate with enemy leaders.

Mr. McCain last night said the Wisconsin results mean the Republican nomination is nearly sewn up.

“I will be our party’s nominee for president of the United States,” he said at his victory party. He has 927 of the 1,191 needed for the nomination.

Mr. McCain thanked Mr. Huckabee for his “passion” and for giving him a contest that keeps him on his toes, but immediately turned his attention to his eventual Democratic opponents — what he called “the hard part” of the election.

On the Democratic side, the two senators are slowly amassing delegates from each contest this primary season. An Associated Press tally gave Mr. Obama a slight lead with 1,294 over Mrs. Clinton’s 1,218. Should one pull off a decisive win 13 days from now, it’s mathematically possible he or she will be able to truly lay claim to the nomination when superdelegates are factored into the equation.

Superdelegates are state and local party activists along with members of Congress and elected Democratic officials.

Polls show the race tightening in the March 4 states, with Ohio being stronger for Mrs. Clinton in part because of its high population of working-class voters that had favored her in the early contests. She will hold rallies there today while her husband, former President Bill Clinton, campaigns for her in Texas.

After Super Tuesday ended in early February, Mrs. Clinton dispersed her staff from across the country into Texas and Ohio, where they have spent weeks organizing. Her campaign said yesterday she has raised at least $15 million so far this month, and she made a point to note her campaign Web site in her speech last night.

Mr. Obama will campaign in Texas before and after tomorrow night’s debate in Austin. The Democrats will debate again in Columbus, Ohio.

Clinton aides in Texas and Ohio said yesterday they are making an “aggressive” push for early and absentee voting and boasted of strong organization and volunteer efforts in both states.

To back up the point, the Clinton campaign sent out a story from yesterday’s Rio Grande Guardian that detailed “long lines at polling places” for “one main reason — Hillary Clinton.”

They also are going after young voters, a group Mr. Obama usually captures but Mrs. Clinton won in California on Super Tuesday.

“We concede absolutely nothing,” said Texas state director Ace Smith.

Earlier yesterday, Team Clinton reminded reporters that Obama aides had “predicted big victories today,” while they insisted they would “do as well as we can.”

Mrs. Clinton, who had won female voters in most of the contests but narrowly lost the group last night, is getting a boost from Emily’s List in Ohio. The group’s get-out-the-vote project is reaching out to 150,000 Ohio women and predicted female voters would be the “margin of victory” for Mrs. Clinton in Ohio.

Emily’s List released a poll showing the former first lady with a 14-point lead over Mr. Obama in Ohio.

“Women are a critical sector of the electorate in a primary since they tend to make up a large majority of the turnout in an election,” said Maren Hesla, director of the Emily’s List project. “It is our hope that through our efforts these women will see what we know to be true: that Senator Hillary Clinton is the candidate with the strength and experience to address the economic issues facing Ohio families and bring real change to our country.”

Should the race still be up for grabs on March 5, working-class Pennsylvania would be the next battleground on April 22.

Sean Lengell contributed to this report.

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