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What to look for in Pennsylvania

Times Staff Writer

Today in Pennsylvania’s hard-fought Democratic presidential primary, there will be a winner and a loser. But the winner might not be the one with the most votes.

With neither Hillary Rodham Clinton nor Barack Obama able to secure the nomination without support from the so-called superdelegates who will cast decisive votes, many dynamics are at work beyond who comes out on top in one day of balloting.

In what may seem like a paradox, the Clinton victory predicted by nearly all public opinion polls might actually turn out to be a loss if she doesn’t win by a significant margin. And if Obama keeps the results closer than some surveys suggest, he could be considered victorious -- unless it appears that Clinton’s campaign has succeeded in casting doubt on his credentials to be commander in chief or his ability to win support in the fall from white, working-class voters.

“The margin of the vote is equally as important” as who posts the highest vote total, said former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, one of the nearly 800 party activists and leaders whose votes as superdelegates will put the winning nominee over the top at this summer’s party convention.

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About 300 of the superdelegates are still uncommitted, including Romer, and many of them will pore over the finer details of today’s results to gauge how each candidate might fare in the fall and, as a result, which one deserves the nomination.

“I keep absorbing information,” Romer said.

Here are some factors that, in addition to who wins the vote, will help decide whether the Pennsylvania primary is one more way station on the road to the final primaries in June, or whether the nomination fight might come to a quicker conclusion:

The spread: Clinton needs to win by at least 10 percentage points -- the margin she posted over Obama in Ohio’s March 4 primary -- to show that she has not lost her touch in the industrial Rust Belt, several uncommitted superdelegates said.

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If she is successful, she will be able to point superdelegates to the fact that she trounced Obama despite being severely outspent on television and radio advertisements in Pennsylvania by a more than 2-to-1 margin.

If Obama can keep the race to within 10 percentage points, or even win, he would claim that he has shown surprising strength in a state that is Clinton’s demographic home turf, with many of the lower-income Democrats who have supported her in earlier primaries. That kind of result would give Obama momentum heading toward the May 6 contests in Indiana and North Carolina, where a sweep would make a Clinton nomination feel all the more unrealistic.

The demographics: A loss by a narrow margin would help Obama argue that he had overcome the two biggest setbacks of his candidacy: the controversies over his pastor’s racially explosive sermons and his own remarks that economically “bitter” voters in small towns “cling” to guns, religion and anti-immigrant sentiment.

Both dust-ups threatened to upend Obama’s appeal to the white, working-class voters that formed the core of Clinton’s base in her Ohio victory and which are seen as crucial to a Democratic victory in the fall.

Superdelegates want to see that Obama, who has struggled to extend his base beyond black voters and wealthy, educated whites, is able to compete against Republican John McCain for those swing voters in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

“I’ll be interested to see how Sen. Obama’s comments affected the race,” said Montana’s state party chairman, Dennis McDonald, who said he planned to sift through all of the exit poll data as he watched election results today from his cattle ranch.

The Clinton campaign signaled Monday that it would not be shy in arguing that nominating Obama would risk alienating certain white voters. In a conference call with reporters, campaign pollster Geoff Garin spoke in blunt terms about how the racial divide in Democratic contests -- with working-class whites clearly preferring Clinton over Obama -- makes her a stronger general election candidate.

“The Obama campaign has simply not done a very effective job connecting with blue-collar and middle-income voters, and they are the heart and soul of the Democratic Party,” Garin said. He added later that Obama’s “appeal among white voters typically has been among the people who are the most affluent” and best educated. It is unusual for the campaign to talk so directly about racial divisions among Democratic voters.

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The delegates: Many superdelegates will be hard-pressed to vote for Clinton if she trails Obama among the so-called pledged delegates, those who are selected by the primaries and caucuses.

Even if Obama is thumped by 10 to 20 percentage points in Pennsylvania, Clinton would not pick up enough delegates there to cut substantially into Obama’s lead. According to the Associated Press, Obama has 1,648.5 pledged delegates and superdelegates to Clinton’s 1,509.5. A candidate needs 2,025 to clinch the nomination.

Obama strategists said Monday that they expected to announce a series of additional endorsements by uncommitted superdelegates shortly after Pennsylvania votes. A strong showing by Obama in Pennsylvania would give superdelegates more comfort in coming forward, but a bad loss might send them back to the assessment stage.

The electability question: After a grueling, six-week campaign, Pennsylvania voters have the unusual job of picking between two bruised candidates.

Previous contests have focused on the electorate’s excitement over each of these two history-making contenders, with some party elders even calling for the two to share the ticket in November. But during the course of the Pennsylvania primary, Obama faced criticism for his relationships with his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., and Bill Ayers, a onetime member of the Weather Underground; for not wearing a U.S. flag pin on his lapel; and for his comments about small-town voters, which some people took as elitist.

And Clinton took heat for exaggerating the danger she faced as first lady during a trip to Bosnia.

Each candidate increasingly has attacked the other for these perceived missteps. And the excitement of electing the first black president or the first female president in a Democratic landslide has turned to concern that the eventual nominee instead will limp into the fall campaign -- dragging his or her dirty laundry for every Republican ad maker and opposition researcher to see.

The question is whether these exchanges have turned off any sets of voters and diminished the eventual nominee’s chances in the fall.

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As Democratic strategist and uncommitted superdelegate Donna Brazile put it Monday, Pennsylvania might show whether the “tone and the tenor of the campaign has worn voters down.”

Arizona superdelegate Don Bivens, who has not endorsed a candidate, said he would be watching the exit polls closely today to measure how each would do in his state in the general election.

“I do pay attention to the drilling down in the numbers,” he said. “You look at how they will do in your own state and region: How did women come out, how did blacks come out, how did whites vote and Hispanics?”

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peter.wallsten@latimes.com


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