Saturday, February 23, 2008

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Sen. Barack Obama cruised through the Lone Star state yesterday, bolstered by superdelegates who are leaning his way, his rival’s vanishing poll lead and large numbers of Hispanics — his opponent’s best hope — attending his events.

The Illinois Democrat leads national polls, has a slim lead or is tied in polls of Texans and is closing the gap with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in Ohio. Yesterday he acted like a front-runner by ducking questions from reporters and instead addressing big crowds in hopes of winning the state’s March 4 vote.

Mr. Obama always gets big cheers when saying President Bush’s name won’t be on the ballot in November, but they were deafening here yesterday, so he added: “We’re sending him back to Texas.”

Mrs. Clinton began her day attacking Mr. Obama’s record but had to suspend a full campaign schedule when she learned that a Dallas police officer had been killed in a motorcycle accident while riding in her motorcade. Calling herself “heartsick,” she appeared in Fort Worth only to thank people for being there. Mr. Obama opened his rally here by asking supporters to observe a moment of silence.

Before learning of the trooper’s accident, Mrs. Clinton challenged Mr. Obama’s voting record, saying it speaks louder than his speeches on the issue of “change.”

“You can’t vote for [Vice President] Dick Cheney’s energy bill and then say we are going to have a new energy policy,” she said, referring to a 2005 Obama vote to pass an administration-backed proposal. He has said he reluctantly supported the bill because it provided money for ethanol, a boon for corn farmers in his home state of Illinois.

She reiterated her stance to stop health insurance companies from discriminating against the sick by denying coverage to those with “pre-existing health conditions.”

“It’s against the law to discriminate on the basis of age, religion, race or creed, but not against the sick. Well, I am going to change that,” she said, repeating a popular debate line from the previous night, to thunderous applause.

All day yesterday, the Obama campaign circulated news reports that he had picked up several superdelegates, including progressive favorite and one-time candidate Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. Neither Mrs. Clinton nor Mr. Obama is likely to win the 2,025 delegates needed to secure the party nod with the remaining contests, so the superdelegates — party activists and lawmakers at all levels — likely hold the key to the nomination.

An Associated Press tally shows Mrs. Clinton holds 241 superdelegates to Mr. Obama’s 181, but he has gained 25 since starting his winning streak earlier this month. He leads in overall delegates, 1,361 to 1,267. Nearly 450 delegates are at stake on March 4 when Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont voters make their choice.

Clinton campaign aides excoriated an Obama mailer saying that Mrs. Clinton supported the North American Free Trade Agreement as a “boon” for the American economy.

Mrs. Clinton denounced the ad as misleading and wrong, saying she would “fix” NAFTA by dramatically strengthening its labor and environmental provisions, changing the investment provisions that grant special rights to foreign companies, and strengthening its enforcement mechanisms.

On the stump here and at the University of Texas Pan-American in Edinburg, in the overwhelmingly Hispanic Rio Grande Valley region of Texas, Mr. Obama mixed in a few Texas anecdotes.

He came onstage to a new Lone Star-themed diddy and under the bright South Texas sun in nearly 80-degree weather said he had been “cold for a while” but was now able to “thaw out.”

During Mr. Obama’s rallies, he talked a bit more about immigration than he does in nonborder states, but didn’t change his position, saying workers must be treated properly and the government must “provide a pathway” for the 12 million or so illegal aliens already in the United States.

“We can be a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants,” he said to cheers.

He also received some of his loudest applause for a standard line: “If you work in this country, you should not be poor.”

As has been the case since Mr. Obama began his winning streak, his rallies have become more like concerts or church services, with his fans straining their arms to get cell-phone cameras in position, even when he’s 50 yards away.

When people shout, “I love you,” he usually calls out, “I love you back,” and yesterday was no exception.

The close of his speech in Edinburg about the importance of being hopeful also was punctuated by a response: “Obama, I believe!”

When he said people complain he “hasn’t been in Washington long enough,” a woman affirmed: “That’s all right!” While another shouted, “We need you.”

He promised, “If you are willing to stand with me and vote for me and work for me, you and I together we will change this country and we will change the world.”

Mr. Obama’s national surge and string of victories have melted away Mrs. Clinton’s formerly huge leads in Texas and Ohio, which she had been counting on as firewalls. ABC News/Washington Post polls released yesterday show Mrs. Clinton leading by just one percentage point in Texas and seven in Ohio.

In Texas, the Rasmussen tracking poll of 549 likely voters released yesterday also showed the race essentially tied — Mrs. Clinton led 47 percent to 44 percent in a survey with a 4.2 percentage point margin of error. The same firm’s poll of 902 likely Ohio voters had the former first lady up by eight points, down from 14 percentage points just a week ago in the same poll and more than 20 points in other surveys at that time.

Like Mrs. Clinton did before losing her advantage, Mr. Obama is holding fewer press availabilities. He popped into the press filing area in Edinburg to tease reporters about their hard work, but ducked out when a reporter asked him a question about Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain.

Before the rally Mr. Obama hosted a small round-table session about his plan to make college more affordable, telling several students he was still paying off student loans “well into our 30s.”

“By the time our kids were born, we were already thinking how are we going to pay off our own loans,” he said.

Brian DeBose was traveling with the Clinton campaign.

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