Bruising battle ahead for Hillary and Obama

Super Tuesday’s close results could lead to bitter fight down to the wire.

IT WILL be a war of attrition.

The fight for the Democratic presidential nomination is entering a new phase, with former first lady Hillary Clinton (left) and Illinois Senator Barack Obama (right) contesting major races across the country over the next few months.

It could ultimately produce a winner but settle nothing, leaving a fractious Democratic Party heading for a nightmare scenario: A bitter convention fight in August.

Super Tuesday, a near-national primary, resolved nothing for the Democrats.

The popular vote from the states that voted on Tuesday could not have been closer. According to an analysis by the New York Times, Mrs Clinton won 7,427,700 votes, or 50.2 per cent of the popular vote, while Mr Obama took 7,369,798 votes, or 49.8 per cent.

Mrs Clinton has 892 delegates and her rival 716. The Democratic nomination requires support from 2,025 delegates. Expect Mr Obama to close the gap fast by winning most of the nomination contests this month.

This round starts this weekend with voters in four states – Washington, Nebraska, Louisiana and Maine, which together offer nearly 150 delegates – heading to the caucuses where Mr Obama holds clear advantages.

Washington state is the biggest prize available this weekend with a total of 68 delegates. The dominance of white liberals in cities like Seattle could favour him heavily, said Mr Reid Wilson, an associate editor of RealClearPolitics, an influential Chicago-based political blog.

He noted that Mr Obama would also do well in Nebraska. Thus far, he has won well in the Plains states, already pocketing North Dakota, Kansas, Missouri and Colorado on Tuesday and neighbouring Iowa a month ago.

The African American senator looks set to sweep the third state as well, Louisiana.

In 2004, non-whites made up 29 per cent of the Louisiana electorate, and while many, particularly blacks, fled the state after Hurricane Katrina, nearly 32 per cent of the population are still African Americans.

On Tuesday, Mr Obama repeated the dominating performance he had in South Carolina, winning blacks in some states by as much as a six-to-one margin.

While Mrs Clinton has been able to make up some of that gap with strong support among Latinos, just 3 per cent of Louisiana voters are Hispanic.

The black vote will be important to Mr Obama in Maryland, Washington, DC and Virginia. He also has the crucial backing of the capital’s mayor, Mr Adrian Fenty, and Virginia Governor Tim Kaine.

The Clinton campaign, however, is confident of winning the big battles that come after that. It is already looking ahead and budgeting for the March 4 primaries – dubbed Super Tuesday Two – in Ohio and Texas, where nearly 400 delegates will be at stake.

Mrs Clinton can rely on the votes of Latinos, who rallied behind her on Tuesday in states like California.

“Clearly, the number of delegates to be harvested from big states such as New York and Massachusetts and New Jersey and California, Texas and Ohio, you know, make them particularly attractive because there is a lot of return on your investment,” she said on Wednesday.

She is also strongly favoured to win in Pennsylvania on Super Tuesday Three on April 22, with Governor Ed Rendell backing her. The state has 158 elected delegates.

For the Clinton campaign, the bottom line is clear: Focus on the big states and leave the smaller ones to Mr Obama. But observers believe this strategy may be flawed.

It will be another month before Mrs Clinton hits a favourable stretch of states. Meanwhile, Mr Obama will have the advantage of momentum if he does well this month – eroding his rival’s leads in states where she is supposed to win comfortably. She had led by wide margins in other states she ended up losing or barely winning.

Also, Mr Obama enjoys an important funding advantage. He took in US$32 million (S$45 million) last month, compared with US$13 million for Mrs Clinton. Most of his haul – US$28 million – came from online and small donors, which means he still has resources to tap.

But most of Mrs Clinton’s donors have reached their limit and she will now have to reach out to new sources of funds, including her own. Indeed, she lent US$5 million to her campaign last month.

The conventional wisdom in the Democratic race has thus been that the longer it is, the more beneficial for Mr Obama. Polls and primary results reveal that the more voters get to know him, the more they seem to like him.

But significantly, while he has made inroads, fervour fell short at the end. Indeed, Tuesday’s results did not match the expectations signalled by his euphoric march of rallies leading up to the vote.

Mrs Clinton also has a crucial advantage over him: She has more support among the 800 super delegates – Democrats who are governors, senators and party leaders. The votes of these big shots at the national convention in Colorado could tip the balance in her favour, even if Mr Obama has won the elected delegates.

The Clinton team is also likely to fight for delegates from Michigan and Florida seated at the convention. Mrs Clinton won both, but these states were stripped of their delegates after they unilaterally moved up their primary dates to January.

Both scenarios could pave the way for a huge floor fight that could split the party.

Expect political trench warfare down to the wire.

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