WASHINGTON — Barack Obama began campaigning as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination on Wednesday, rolling out a comprehensive economic plan and challenging Republican John McCain as much as Hillary Clinton.
While Obama worked Wisconsin, which votes on Tuesday, Clinton campaigned near the Mexican border in south Texas, a crucial big state that votes March 4. She declared herself "in the solutions business" and Obama "in the promises business," and she threw down this challenge: "Tell him to meet me in Texas. We're ready."
Following Obama's sweep Tuesday night of Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said it's "highly unlikely" that Clinton can win enough delegates from the remaining state contests to capture the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in August.
To do so, Plouffe said Clinton would have to win Ohio, Texas and virtually all other remaining primaries by roughly 2-to-1 margins over Obama. "We see no evidence that that's going to happen," he said.
But Clinton's political field director, Guy Cecil, said Clinton continues to lead in Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania, which together represent 64 percent of remaining delegates. After those states vote, he said, "we expect that we will be in a virtual tie with Senator Obama in delegates. The delegate race will be within 25 delegates."
Clinton's calculations assume her continued support from many so-called "super delegates" to the convention, political insiders who aren't selected by popular votes but who could end up choosing the nominee. There are 796 Democratic super delegates, 20 percent of the total. About half haven't endorsed any candidate, and those who have can switch.
David Wilhelm, who managed Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, endorsed Obama on Wednesday. A venture capitalist in Ohio and himself a super delegate, Wilhelm said he's making the case for Obama to uncommitted super delegates and Clinton supporters alike. "It's time for super delegates to begin ratifying the choice of Democratic primary voters," he said.
He said super delegates who bought in too early to the idea that Clinton was the inevitable nominee are "the only reason this race appears to be closer than it actually is," and he expects some to switch.
"I don't think super delegates as a group have any interest whatsoever in overturning the choice of Democratic primary voters," Wilhelm said. "If super delegates overrule the choice of Democratic primary voters, that would be a very difficult and divisive scenario for the party."
In Wisconsin, Obama introduced what his campaign billed as a comprehensive economic package, which he said he could pay for with cap-and-trade greenhouse gas emissions auctions, ending the Iraq war and other measures.
_ $60 billion over 10 years to create a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank aimed at generating 2 million jobs, with an emphasis on the hard-hit construction industry.
_ $150 billion over 10 years for an energy research and job creation fund, which he'd announced previously. On Wednesday, he added details, saying he aims to create 5 million "green-collar" jobs that can't be outsourced to help make the country more energy efficient.
_ A middle-class tax cut of $1,000, a sweeping health care plan and relief for mortgage fraud victims, all of which he'd announced earlier.
In a speech to assembly workers at a General Motors plant in Janesville, Wis., Obama donned the front-runner mantle, yoking Clinton and McCain together as part of a failed Washington establishment.
Obama also blamed former President Clinton — and by extension his wife — for trade deals such as NAFTA, which he said hurt American workers.
"It's a Washington where decades of trade deals like NAFTA and China have been signed with plenty of protections for corporations and their profits," Obama said, "but none for our environment or our workers who've seen factories shut their doors and millions of jobs disappear."
In her south Texas speech, a hoarse Clinton said Obama talks a good game but offers scant policy details and won't deliver on urgent economic changes. "We need real results, not more rhetoric," she said.
Speaking to reporters after the rally, Clinton said she was upbeat about her chances in Texas and downplayed her recent string of eight losses since Saturday.
"Some weeks, you know, one of us is up and the other is down, and then we reverse it,'' she said. "It's a long and winding road, and we're all picking up delegates as we go.''
HIGHLIGHTS OF OBAMA'S COMPREHENSIVE ECONOMIC PLAN
_ Overall estimated cost of $197 billion per year.
_ How it would be paid for: a combination of sources including cap-and-trade emissions greenhouse gas auctions, tax increases for wealthy and ending the Iraq war.
_ $60 billion over 10 years for a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank aimed at generating 2 million jobs.
_ $150 billion over 10 years for an energy research fund that aims to create 5 million "green-collar" jobs
_ Previously proposed middle-class and seniors tax cuts; universal health care coverage; college tuition tax credit; retirement security; mortgage fraud relief fund; expanded child-care tax credits; end to tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas.
(Jay Root of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram contributed to this report from McAllen, Texas, where he covered Clinton.)