Politics & Government

Clinton 'determined' after win in W. Va., but does it matter?

Clinton declares she'll stay to the end after her W. Va., win at the Charleston Civic Center on May 13, 2008.
Clinton declares she'll stay to the end after her W. Va., win at the Charleston Civic Center on May 13, 2008. Jeff Gentner / AP

CHARLESTON, W. Va. — Hillary Clinton clobbered Barack Obama in West Virginia Tuesday, clinging to hope that her late win in a small state could slow his march toward the Democratic presidential nomination.

Clinton won the overwhelmingly white state in a walk — by a landslide margin of 2-1, according to exit polls — and used the results to argue that Americans shouldn't count her out.

"There are some who have wanted to cut this race short. They say give up, it's too hard, the mountain is too high," Clinton told supporters in Charleston.

"But here in West Virginia, you know a thing or two about tough roads to the top of the mountain. ... We know from the Bible that faith can move mountains. My friends, the faith of the Mountain State has moved me.

"I am more determined than ever to carry on this campaign until everyone has had a chance to make their voices heard," she added. "This race isn't over yet."

But she also sent conciliatory signals to Obama, saying she "deeply" admires him in what appeared to be a sign that she plans to spend the final weeks of the long campaign on an upbeat note. As she spoke, a group staffed by Clinton supporters, www.voteboth.com, used her West Virginia win to push anew for an Obama-Clinton ticket as the only way to unify the party.

Clinton coasted to the easy victory as Obama all but conceded West Virginia and next week's contest in neighboring Kentucky. He made only one campaign appearance in West Virginia over the last week and canceled a scheduled appearance Tuesday in Kentucky.

Obama instead turned his attention to a friendlier political landscape next week in Oregon and the general election campaign beyond against Republican nominee-in-waiting John McCain. Obama campaigned Tuesday in Missouri and planned Wednesday to visit Michigan, both of them general election battlefields.

"This is a state where we will compete to win when I am the Democratic nominee for president," the Illinois senator said Tuesday in Cape Girardeau, Mo., in a speech that never mentioned Clinton.

Clinton, the New York senator, had no such luxury, being $20 million in debt and desperate for wins to keep her rapidly fading prospects alive.

Just 28 delegates were at stake in West Virginia, a fraction that's unlikely to have much impact on a race that's shifting rapidly to Obama since he won last week's showdown in North Carolina and came within striking distance of taking Indiana away from Clinton.

Obama now leads in every category: state contests, delegates elected in primaries, superdelegates who get convention votes because of their status as elected or party officials, and the nationwide popular vote.

He already led in pledged delegates and pulled ahead of Clinton this week for the first time in superdelegates as more came out to support his candidacy.

He also leads in the nationwide popular vote — even if the disputed primaries of Florida or Michigan are added to the total for the sake of argument, as Clinton did until recently.

Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Roy Romer on Tuesday added his name to the growing list of superdelegates backing Obama, and he urged Clinton to drop out.

"This race, I believe, is over," said Romer, a former governor of Colorado.

"The question now involves the tone of a withdrawal," said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., a former primary rival. "When and if she does withdraw, she has to be gracious. It's not so much when or where, but again, it's the tone."

The math against Clinton is powerful. Obama led in delegates with 1,875, now just 150 short of the 2,025 needed to clinch the nomination. Clinton had 1,712 — 313 short.

With fewer than 400 delegates left — 189 to be awarded in primaries remaining after Tuesday and the rest uncommitted superdelegates — it's possible that Obama could clinch the nomination when primary voting ends on June 3.

All it would take is for him to split delegates in the remaining five primaries evenly and take only one out of three remaining superdelegates.

Clinton's campaign called West Virginia a critical state and said that her win there signaled that she alone could carry the state for Democrats in November.

"The Mountain State is used to picking winners. Every nominee has carried the state's primary since 1976, and no Democrat has won the White House without winning West Virginia since 1916," the Clinton campaign said in a memo.

"Sen. Clinton has already won Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan. With a win in West Virginia, Sen. Clinton will have once again proven her greater ability to win in the key swing states."

Clinton did again win a key voting bloc in West Virginia that the Democrats need in November — working-class whites.

In fact, Obama has won the white vote in only seven of the 32 states where voters have been surveyed as they exit polling places.

In West Virginia, that could make it difficult for Obama in November if he's the nominee.

One out of five whites said the race of the candidates was a factor, the second highest percentage after Mississippi. Of them, only a third said they'd vote for Obama if he were the Democratic nominee against McCain.

Another troubling sign for Obama: Nearly half of all primary voters said they'd vote for McCain or stay home if Obama were the nominee.

But Clinton's argument that only she can carry all those swing states in November has glaring holes, and it hasn't stemmed the tide of superdelegates turning against her and toward Obama.

First, her argument about West Virginia's importance undercuts the value of winning the primary there. By noting that every Democratic nominee since 1976 has won the primary, she inadvertently links herself not only to candidates such as Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton who won the state in spring AND fall — but also to Walter Mondale, Al Gore and John Kerry, who went on to lose it in general elections.

Second, Obama could carry many of the Democratic votes in November that went to Clinton in the spring.

Third, her argument ignores the fact that she lost several other swing states that also are traditional battlegrounds in the fall, including Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin.

Turnout in West Virginia appeared average, according to Sarah Bailey, West Virginia's deputy secretary of state. That would be a letdown from the surge of voting in earlier states, a reflection perhaps of the fact that Obama didn't compete heavily in the state or that voters sensed that the four-month campaign was nearing a conclusion.

(Thomma reported from Washington; Douglas from West Virginia. Margaret Talev and David Lightman contributed.)

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