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Good night, not goodbye for Clinton

Times Staff Writers

Hillary Rodham Clinton easily won the Pennsylvania primary Tuesday, staving off elimination and ensuring that the Democrats’ fierce nominating battle would last at least another two weeks.

In a state racked by economic anxiety, Clinton rolled to victory with strong support from women, seniors and blue-collar voters -- the coalition that carried the senator from New York to wins elsewhere, including her back-to-the-wall victory last month in Ohio.

Clinton led Barack Obama 55% to 45%, with 99% of the precincts reporting.

“Some counted me out and said to drop out,” an exuberant Clinton told cheering supporters who packed a hotel ballroom in downtown Philadelphia. “But the American people don’t quit. And they deserve a president who doesn’t quit either.”

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Clinton began Tuesday with a daunting task -- not just winning, but winning big enough to change the course of a contest in which she trails Obama by most significant measurements: fundraising, pledged delegates and popular vote, as well as the number of states won.

Despite her victory, the Democrats’ proportional awarding of delegates made it unlikely that Clinton would significantly dent Obama’s lead, though she narrowed his advantage in the popular vote.

She also gained an important talking point: her greater strength in the big states that Democrats will need to win the White House in November. Along with Pennsylvania and Ohio, Clinton can point to victories in California, New Jersey and New York.

The next big test comes May 6, when Indiana and North Carolina vote. With Obama favored in North Carolina, Indiana shapes up as a potential must-win for Clinton.

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Obama returned to the Midwest even before learning of his defeat. Speaking to a subdued crowd at a basketball arena in Evansville, Ind., he congratulated Clinton for running “a terrific race” and admonished those who booed the mention of her name. “We closed the gap,” said Obama, his face taut. “We rallied people of every race and age and background to the cause.”

“Now it’s up to you, Indiana,” he added.

For Democrats eager for an end to the prolonged nominating fight, Tuesday’s result was disappointingly equivocal.

“Hillary Clinton had a good night but not a great night,” said Peter Fenn, a veteran Democratic strategist who is neutral in the primaries. “Tonight keeps her racing around the track. But after 150 laps in the Indianapolis 500, she won’t pass Obama unless he runs out of gas. And right now she’s the one who has run out of money and must win handily in the races still to come.”

As the Pennsylvania voting was underway, Clinton worked to tamp down those kinds of expectations and shift the burden of electoral proof to her front-running rival.

“I think a win is a win,” she told reporters at a morning stop in the Philadelphia suburbs, employing a phrase she repeated in several election day interviews. “I think maybe the question ought to be, why can’t he close the deal with his extraordinary financial advantage?”

Obama has tens of millions more in the bank than Clinton, whose last financial report showed her campaign effectively in the red. In Pennsylvania, the senator from Illinois outspent Clinton on television advertising by more than 2 to 1. Even so, Obama insisted Tuesday that he was the underdog, noting that a few weeks ago, Pennsylvania polls had shown him as many as 20 points behind.

“This is always an uphill climb,” Obama told reporters after sharing pancakes at a Pittsburgh diner with his wife, Michelle. He forecast the Democratic race would last until the final votes are cast June 3 in Montana and South Dakota. The bright side, Obama said, “is we’re seeing record turnouts, record involvement. We’re building organizations that are getting tested.”

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Mathematically, with just nine contests left, it appears virtually impossible for Clinton to overtake Obama in the popular vote and among pledged delegates -- those chosen in primaries and caucuses. Her best hope was to instill enough doubts about Obama to persuade the 300 or so uncommitted superdelegates to rally to her side.

Pennsylvania was the last of the big-state contests and offered Clinton perhaps her last best chance to make the case that she could better appeal to the economically hard-pressed white voters that Democrats will need to win the White House.

The balloting Tuesday was the first in six weeks -- the last being Obama’s landslide win in Mississippi. The lull was marked by a soap opera’s worth of political twists and turns. There were headline-generating slaps at Obama by former New York Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro and former President Bill Clinton; controversies over the incendiary preaching of Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., and Clinton’s hyperbolic recollection of a trip as first lady to Bosnia; the demotion of Clinton’s chief campaign strategist, Mark Penn, and the storm over Obama’s characterization of life in struggling small towns.

Throughout, and notwithstanding his difficulties, there was a small but perceptible drift toward Obama as a growing number of superdelegates fell in behind his candidacy.

With both sides fighting furiously -- Clinton to survive, Obama to close out a race that has lasted far longer than expected -- Pennsylvania witnessed some of the harshest campaigning of the race.

Clinton characterized Obama as an elitist, seizing on his suggestion that some Americans, bitter at their financial struggles, find succor in guns and religion. There was even a fleeting appearance -- the first ever on the Democratic side -- by Osama bin Laden, who showed up in a Clinton TV spot that questioned Obama’s readiness for office.

Obama countered with an ad that suggested Clinton was preying on people’s fears, and painted her as a Washington insider caught up in the Beltway’s “gotcha” mentality.

By the time the contest was over, many Pennsylvanians knew the two candidates well -- and found themselves squabbling over the election much like Clinton and Obama themselves.

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Mike Swiderski, 32, who builds houses in Scranton, took the day off to work for Obama, posting campaign signs around town. His girlfriend, accountant Jeanette Heal, voted for Clinton. “We fight about it all the time,” said Heal, 34, as she left her polling place at Fargione Auto Shop. “I made up my mind for Hillary sometime in the ‘90s.”

There were 158 pledged delegates at stake Tuesday, the biggest single prize left on the campaign calendar. Clinton won at least 66 and Obama 57, with 35 still to be awarded, according to the Associated Press. Overall, Obama leads 1,705.5 to 1,575.5, with 2,024 delegates needed to win the nomination.

Exit polls found a pervasive sense of economic gloom shrouding the Keystone State: 80% of Pennsylvania voters surveyed believe the nation is in a recession; 4 in 10 called it a serious recession, according to polling done for TV networks and the Associated Press.

Clinton received slightly higher marks than Obama when voters were asked which could best address economic issues.

Replicating her earlier success, Clinton drew strong support among women, who made up 60% of the electorate, as well as seniors. She outpolled Obama among white men, a swing group ardently courted by both candidates, and stayed competitive with Obama among whites younger than 30, who have been a key part of his constituency elsewhere.

Obama continued to win overwhelmingly among black voters and among the better-educated voters of both races. He also won among newly registered Democrats, a group that constituted about 1 in 10 voters Tuesday, according to exit polling

About 1 in 5 voters said race was among the top factors in their vote, and about as many cited the candidate’s gender. White voters who cited race backed Clinton over Obama by 3 to 1. Whites who said race was not a factor were split more evenly.

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mark.barabak@latimes.com

noam.levey@latimes.com

Levey reported from Philadelphia and Barabak from San Francisco.

Times staff writers Peter Nicholas and Faye Fiore contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

PENNSYLVANIA

CLINTON: 55%

OBAMA: 45%

Total declared delegates*

Clinton: 1575

Obama: 1705

Total needed to win: 2,024

*Including superdelegates; 99% of precincts reporting


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