For the Democrats, it’s crunch time

Times Staff Writers

Hillary Rodham Clinton, once seen as a lock for the Democratic nomination, battled Saturday into possibly the last weekend of her presidential campaign, struggling to reverse a tide of money and momentum that has turned dramatically toward Barack Obama.

The New York senator stormed across Texas, questioning Obama’s readiness to lead, particularly on national security issues.

“You are, in effect, hiring the next president,” Clinton told supporters at a rally at a San Antonio high school. “What you’ve got to decide is: Who do you want to hire?”

The Illinois senator touched down in Rhode Island -- his first campaign visit to the tiny state -- as well as Ohio.

Obama targeted Clinton with some of his harshest criticism of the campaign, knocking her for taking money from federal lobbyists, voting for “George Bush’s war in Iraq” and voting for a bankruptcy bill that made it “harder for families to climb out of debt.”


The three states and Vermont will vote Tuesday in contests that could effectively settle the Democratic fight.

In a campaign that has frequently defied expectations, a consensus emerged as the candidates caromed across the country: Clinton must win Texas and Ohio to have any serious hope of sustaining her bid to become the nation’s first female president. A split decision would not suffice, analysts said, and winning narrowly may not help.

“We’re reaching a point where -- not all voters, but lots of voters -- are starting to feel it’s time for the party to coalesce around a candidate,” said Geoffrey D. Garin, a veteran Democratic pollster who is nonaligned in the contest. “The Clinton campaign has to have a compelling and persuasive reason to go on. . . . She’s got to come out of Tuesday with people believing that she has a realistic path to the nomination.”

The political math seems to work against the former front-runner. Obama has opened a small-but-growing lead of delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Unless Clinton starts winning big -- and polling in Texas and Ohio suggests that will be difficult -- she could have a tough time overtaking Obama.

“We have to maintain our delegate lead and make sure that we don’t get blown out in those two states,” Obama told reporters this week as he campaigned across Texas. “If we come out of the four contests on Tuesday with a gap in the delegate count of 100 or 150, which we have right now, then I continue to believe that we will go to the convention with the most earned delegates, and believe that we should be the nominee.”

After racking up 11 straight victories, Obama has two things going for him as he vies to become the nation’s first African American president: the proportional awarding of delegates -- which means he can keep adding to his number even if he loses the popular vote to Clinton -- and the campaign calendar.

After Tuesday, the race shifts to Wyoming, which holds caucuses Saturday. Obama has posted some of his biggest victory margins in caucus states. Then comes Mississippi, on March 11, with a large black electorate; Obama is expected to win in a landslide, further padding his delegate total.

Clinton is counting on victories in Texas and Ohio -- by any margin -- to upend Obama and set off her own winning streak, thereby impressing the uncommitted superdelegates, or party leaders, she needs to win the nomination.

The next big-state contest is April 22 in Pennsylvania. A Clinton win there could bolster her claim that she is better able to compete in November, following earlier victories in California, New York and New Jersey. The Democrats will likely need to carry all those states to win the general election.

On Saturday, Clinton continued her attacks on Obama as a prospective commander in chief, telling reporters his thin congressional resume was scant preparation for the menace he would face in office.

“His entire campaign is based on making a speech in 2002,” she said, referring to Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war. “I give him credit for making the speech. But the speech was not followed up by action.”

She pressed her case before a crowd of about 1,500 supporters in Fort Worth. “This is a wartime election,” Clinton said. “We have a war to end in Iraq, and a war to win in Afghanistan. . . . We have real enemies, sitting in some cave somewhere, trying to figure out how to hurt us again.”

Obama fired back in Rhode Island, accusing Clinton of political opportunism.

“Real change isn’t about changing your position to fit the politics of the moment,” he said at Rhode Island College in Providence. Real change, he said, is not voting for war in Iraq and then describing it as “actually a vote for more diplomacy.”

“The title of the bill was ‘A Resolution to Authorize the Use of the United States Armed Forces Against Iraq’,” Obama said. “That sounds like you were voting for authorizing the use of armed forces against Iraq.”

Obama and Clinton have traced divergent paths over the last month, since they effectively fought to a draw Super Tuesday. Riding his winning streak, Obama has outperformed Clinton in virtually every meaningful measure.

Over the last week he has drawn huge crowds: 10,000 people in Providence; 13,000 in Fort Worth; 15,000 in Toledo. Clinton’s crowds, by contrast, rarely exceeded 2,000, which would normally be seen as an impressive number.

She raised $35 million in February. But Obama collected even more, according to campaign manager David Plouffe, adding more than 200,000 donors to the rolls. (The Obama campaign has until later this month to report its monthly total; February’s sum could exceed $50 million.)

Institutional forces have begun moving Obama’s way. His growing support among superdelegates includes several peeled away from Clinton.

Organized labor has begun to flex its formidable muscle on Obama’s behalf. On Friday, unions reported spending $2.3 million in Texas and Ohio, the bulk of it for TV ads. Pro-Clinton groups spent less than $100,000.

With all those advantages for Obama, the Clinton camp has sought to raise the stakes. Polls have shown Clinton ahead by a shrinking margin in Ohio, and falling behind Obama in Texas after once enjoying a commanding lead in both states.

“The onus is on him to show some real victories here,” Howard Wolfson, a senior Clinton strategist, said Friday in a conference call with reporters.

The fortunes of the two Democrats were evident in the mood of the candidates and their staffs. While Clinton and her aides were tightly coiled -- snapping at reporters and griping about their coverage -- Obama displayed a breezy confidence and an increased willingness to face questioning. (After one session with reporters aboard his campaign charter, he walked back to his seat softly singing Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle.”)

However, Obama has been careful to avoid suggestions he is taking the nomination for granted and turning to the November race against presumed GOP nominee John McCain. The Arizona senator, who could mathematically clinch the Republican nomination with wins Tuesday in Texas and Ohio, took the weekend off and planned to resume campaigning Monday in Texas.

On Friday, at an American Legion post in Houston, a man in the audience said he hoped that Obama, in the “ensuing debates” with McCain, would make clear his opposition to the concept of preemptive war.

“First of all, just one point I’ve got to make is: I’ve still got this thing called a Democratic primary,” Obama said. “I don’t want to jump the gun. . . . I’ve got this very tough competitor named Hillary Rodham Clinton.”




Barabak reported from Texas and Finnegan from Texas and Ohio. Times staff writers Maria L. La Ganga, Dan Morain, Louise Roug and Stuart Silverstein contributed to this report.