The Democratic presidential nomination contest -- relegated to almost a sideshow in recent days as fireworks intensified between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain -- is all but certain to pass an important milestone today as voters head to the polls in Kentucky and Oregon.
By day's end, Obama expects to have locked up a majority of the pledged delegates to the party's national convention. Though not assuring Obama of the nomination in August, the achievement would signal that victory is near in his hard-fought battle with Hillary Rodham Clinton.
To mark the moment, Obama will appear at a rally tonight not in one of the primary states, but in Iowa -- the state whose January caucuses brought Obama a win that galvanized his campaign.
The choreographed setting is meant to suggest the near- inevitability of Obama's nomination, without claiming an outright triumph that would offend Clinton loyalists whose support is needed in November.
On Monday, Obama continued to target McCain, not Clinton. At a stop in Billings, Mont., the Illinois senator noted the recent resignation of five McCain campaign staffers because of their lobbying activities. Obama said the presumptive Republican nominee's campaign was "being run by Washington lobbyists and paid for with their money."
Tucker Bounds, a spokesman for the Arizona senator, countered that McCain had "the strictest policy barring federal lobbyists from the campaign in history," and challenged Obama to "shed light on the long list of federal lobbyists advising him on policy issues."
The Clinton campaign, for its part, signaled that Obama's fight for the Democratic nomination wasn't over. The New York senator will head Wednesday to Florida, a state whose delegates she is trying to have reinstated to rescue her candidacy. Obama had already planned to appear there on the same day.
Clinton's communications director, Howard Wolfson, characterized Obama's rally in Iowa as a "plan to declare himself the Democratic nominee," and said his delegate totals didn't justify that stance. "Premature victory laps and false declarations of victory are unwarranted," he said.
Political strategists not affiliated with either Democratic campaign said Obama apparently was being careful not to actually claim victory tonight.
"This is a pretty delicate situation for the Obama campaign. They're obviously going to do everything they can here to make sure Sen. Clinton has a soft landing at the end of this campaign," said Bill Carrick, a Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist.
Still, he said, "clearly calling attention to having a majority of the pledged delegates suggests that, mathematically, the campaign is coming to an end."
Setting the appearance in Iowa, Carrick added, helps Obama "on the big symbolic level. His candidacy took off like a rocket ship after winning the Iowa caucuses. There's a symmetry between the start in Iowa and the end of the [Democratic] campaign. On a more practical level, Iowa is clearly a swing state in the November election, and Sen. Obama's going there because he wants to reinforce the support he has in Iowa and start reaching out to swing voters there."
On Monday, Obama, speaking before a crowd of 1,700 in a high school gymnasium in Billings, appeared to be practicing the delicate art of portraying himself as the presumptive Democratic nominee while not discounting Clinton's candidacy. Ahead are "a number of contests, including Montana, before we are able to secure the nomination," he said. He added that Clinton "has run a magnificent race and she is still working hard, as I am, for these last primary contests."
The Democratic rivals are expected to post split results in today's primaries, with Clinton heavily favored in Kentucky and Obama thought to be well ahead in Oregon.
Yet even if his showing is weak, Obama should be able to amass enough pledged delegates -- the delegates awarded to candidates based on popular voting -- for the majority.
That doesn't mean Obama will have clinched the nomination. He needs to win more delegates to cross that threshold. But his campaign believes that Obama, once an underdog, will have reached an impressive mark.
So far, Obama has won 1,610.5 pledged delegates, versus 1,443.5 for Clinton, according to the Associated Press.
Because the total number of pledged delegates is 3,253, party officials say, a candidate needs 1,627.5 to secure a majority. Obama is 17 short of that mark. He should easily pick up that number in Oregon and Kentucky, where a total of 103 delegates are at stake.
Even so, after today's primaries, Obama will be short of the number he needs to lock down the nomination: 2,026, according to the Democratic National Committee. (That number assumes the results in Florida and Michigan are not counted. The states were stripped of their delegates for defying party rules by moving ahead in the primary calendar. Reinstating those delegates is crucial to Clinton's strategy.)
Superdelegates -- elected officials and party insiders who are free to vote for any candidate they choose -- are another part of the equation. As of Monday, Obama had 304.5 superdelegates, compared with 277.5 for Clinton, according to the AP.
Total everything up and Obama is leading Clinton 1,915 to 1,721, a margin of 194.
On the eve of the Kentucky and Oregon contests, Obama was 111 delegates short of clinching the nomination. Even if superdelegates continue to flock to Obama, it is unlikely Obama will close that gap today -- the point the Clinton campaign is stressing.
Obama scooped up five more superdelegates Monday, Clinton none. The most prominent was Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, where Clinton scored an overwhelming victory a week ago. In a statement, Byrd called Clinton and Obama "extraordinary individuals," but added that Obama "is a shining young statesman who possesses the personal temperament and courage necessary to extricate our country from this costly misadventure in Iraq."
Democratic pollster John Anzalone said Byrd also probably was delivering an assessment that the Democratic race was effectively over. "Robert Byrd can do math just like anyone else can," he said.