Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Obama reaches delegate strength

No Democrat has achieved a majority of white voters since 1972.

May 21, 2008
Obama Says Delegate Threshold Reached

DES MOINES — Senator Barack Obama took a big step toward becoming the Democratic presidential nominee on Tuesday, amassing enough additional delegates to claim a nearly insurmountable advantage in his race against Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

While Mrs. Clinton’s campaign continued to make a case that she could prevail, Mr. Obama was poised to use the results from Democratic contests in Kentucky and Oregon to move into a new phase of the campaign in which he will face different challenges. Those include bringing Mrs. Clinton’s supporters into his camp; winning over elements of the Democratic coalition like working-class whites, Hispanics and Jews; and fending off attacks from Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, especially on national security.

Mr. Obama’s obstacles were underlined by what was a lopsided defeat in Kentucky, where just half of the Democratic voters said in exit polls that they would back Mr. Obama in the general election this fall.

But under the rules used by Democrats, Mr. Obama picked up additional delegates even in defeat, moving him closer to securing a majority of the delegates up for grabs in primaries and caucuses. Mr. Obama’s campaign expected to exceed that threshold, which it has portrayed as the proper yardstick for judging the will of Democratic voters, by the time the results are in from Oregon, where the polls close at 11 p.m. Eastern time.

Indeed, Mr. Obama was eager to claim that majority. “It’s clear that tonight we have reached a major milestone on this journey,” he said in an e-mail to supporters. “We have won an absolute majority of all the delegates chosen by the people in this Democratic primary process.”

Even as Mr. Obama moved closer to making history as the first black presidential nominee, his aides said he would stop short of declaring victory in the Democratic race, part of a carefully calibrated effort in the remaining weeks of the contest to avoid appearing disrespectful to Mrs. Clinton and alienating her supporters.

Mrs. Clinton, declaring victory in Kentucky, made clear that she had no intention of stepping aside before the Democratic voting ends on June 3. “This is one of the closest races for a party’s nomination in modern history,” she said. “We are winning the popular vote, and I am more determined than ever to see that every vote is cast and every ballot is counted.”

Going into Tuesday, Mr. Obama’s had 1,915 of the 2,026 pledged delegates and superdelegates needed to claim the nomination, according to a count and projection by The New York Times. His campaign estimated that if he simply held his own in the remaining contests, he would need only 25 more votes from superdelegates, the elected Democrats and party leaders who are delegates without having to be selected in a primary. There are 221 undeclared superdelegates left; Mr. Obama has been rolling out endorsements on a daily basis.

Mr. Obama marked the moment with a highly symbolic return to Iowa, the state that launched his campaign with a big win on Jan. 3. Mr. Obama’s aides said they were increasingly concerned that the long fight with Mrs. Clinton had given Mr. McCain a free ride in critical general election states.

His appearance in Iowa, which looms as a battleground state in the fall election, also suggested a new focus on the coming fight against Mr. McCain.

Mr. Obama is scheduled to spend Wednesday through Friday in Florida, focusing specifically on the corridor between Tampa and Orlando, a region bustling with swing voters. In the next month, Mr. Obama will head to Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Ohio, even as he continues to spend time where the remaining three contests will be held..

But even as he moved closer to winning the intensely fought nominating contest with Mrs. Clinton — a battle suffused with history and the tension inherent in a campaign defined in part by race and gender — Mr. Obama was preparing to deal with a series of challenges in the weeks ahead.

“We know we have our work cut our for us,” said Steve Hildebrand, a deputy campaign manager for Mr. Obama. “But we are up to the task.”

A rally in downtown Des Moines on Tuesday evening, where thousands gathered against the backdrop of the State Capitol building, offered evidence of steps Mr. Obama was taking to try to unite the party. Thousands of telephone and e-mail invitations went out across Iowa, where Mr. McCain is already running television commercials, to party activists and independent voters. Those targeted were not only existing supporters of Mr. Obama, but also voters who backed other candidates earlier this year and will soon be asked to join the fight against Mr. McCain.

Beyond that, the results in Kentucky again suggested Mr. Obama’s general weakness with white blue-collar voters. They supported Mrs. Clinton by big margins in Kentucky, as they did in Indiana, Pennsylvania and Ohio, with many saying they would not vote for Mr. Obama in the general election.

Mr. Obama’s aides disputed the significance of the findings, pointing to national polls that show him running strongly against Mr. McCain with those voters and arguing that Democrats would return to the fold as the contest between Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain took shape.

“You can’t look at it that way,” said David Plouffe, Mr. Obama’s campaign manager. “There’s enough evidence now in public polls that in a general election against McCain, in the states that will determine the presidency, her supporters are coming our way. I think this is an issue that in 30 or 60 days we will not be talking about.”

Since 1972, when exit polls first began, no Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of white voters. The closest division was in 1992, a three-way contest when 39 percent of whites voted for Bill Clinton and 40 percent voted for the first President Bush. In 2004, President Bush defeated John Kerry among whites by 58 percent to 41 percent.

David Axelrod, the chief strategist for Mr. Obama, said he was not worried about the significant share of Clinton supporters who said they would be disappointed if Mr. Obama became the nominee. He predicted a “natural coalescence” among Democrats after the nominating battle concludes because of a concern over the war, the economy and the direction of the country.

Mr. Obama’s strengths in the race were underlined Tuesday night when his campaign reported that he had raised $31.3 million in April, compared with $22 million raised by Mrs. Clinton and $18.5 million raised by Mr. McCain. Mr. Obama, who continued to take in most of his money in small donations, also ended the month with more cash on hand than either of his rivals. Over all, he has taken in more than $158 million this year.

Mr. Obama’s advisers acknowledged that the campaign would need to deal with a perception of weakness, at least among critical party members. In particular, contributors and supporters of Mrs. Clinton worried that Mr. Obama was suffering because of attacks on his relationship with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., as well as his patriotism.

Adam Nagourney reported from New York, and Jeff Zeleny from Des Moines. Megan Thee and Dalia Sussman contributed reporting.

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