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Analysis: Clinton appears to be on the ropes, badly needing wins in Texas, Ohio

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Posted: February 21, 2008 2:39 p.m.
Updated: March 7, 2008 5:00 a.m.
Analysis: Clinton appears to be on the ropes, badly needing wins in Texas, Ohio

Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., addresses a rally in the Hunter College auditorium in New York, Wednesday Feb. 20, 2008.

    WASHINGTON — She’s still fighting, but it’s awfully hard to find encouraging news for Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic homestretch.
    She’s behind in money, delegates and momentum. She’s selling experience when everyone seems to want change. And all the cheering for the man who could be the first black president is drowning out any excitement for the first female.
    Once deemed the nearly inevitable Democratic nominee, Clinton has now lost 10 presidential contests in a row as the battle heads for a March 4 showdown in Texas and Ohio — states she must win. By most measures, the combative New York senator is on the ropes.
    ‘‘If she wins in Texas and Ohio, I think she’ll be the nominee,’’ former President Clinton said Wednesday during a speech to his wife’s supporters in Beaumont, Texas. ‘‘If you don’t deliver for her, I don’t think she can be.’’
    Those are big ‘‘ifs.’’
    Rival Democrat Barack Obama won Hawaii caucuses and Wisconsin’s primary on Tuesday, extending his winning streak and making him difficult to overtake in the remaining 16 races. Clinton hasn’t won a contest since Super Tuesday on Feb. 5.
    Helping keep her afloat is her thin lead among nearly 800 superdelegates, made up largely of party and elected Democratic officials — but some of those who once backed her have recently switched to Obama. Others seem rattled.
    Of course, few political veterans are prepared to dismiss a Clinton candidacy before all the votes are in. There have been gravity-defying comebacks before in the family. And Obama is still short of the 2,025 delegates needed to clinch the nomination.
    Clinton clearly is capable of dragging the race out for weeks even if the turnaround she is seeking doesn’t materialize on March 4.
    ‘‘It’s fair to say the race isn’t over yet, but I think Senator Clinton must win Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania to have any shot at getting the nomination,’’ said Democratic strategist and pollster Mark Mellman, who is not affiliated with either candidate. ‘‘Obama could lose all three and still get the nomination. So at this point, he’s got more ways to win than she does.’’ Pennsylvania votes on April 22.
    One by one, Clinton’s original strengths have taken hits as the first-term Illinois senator’s vital signs have improved.
    — Raising a million dollars a day for most of this year, Obama has outpaced Clinton in fundraising and spending. ‘‘Anybody who won’t tell you it’s disheartening is lying to you,’’ said one of Clinton’s New York fundraisers, John Catsimatidis. ‘‘The old adage is don’t count the Clintons out yet. I still stick by that. We wait and see what happens.’’
    — She’s behind in delegates, and the gap has been growing. She must win 57 percent of the remaining primary and caucus delegates to erase Obama’s lead, a daunting task requiring landslide-sized victories. Obama has 1,178 pledged delegates won in primaries and caucuses in The Associated Press’ count. Clinton has 1,024. An additional 1,025 remain to be awarded; it takes 2,025 to win the nomination.
    — Momentum? That clearly goes to Obama, who has been building support among women and white working class voters who have long formed the core of Clinton’s candidacy.
    On Wednesday, he picked up the support of the 1.4 million-member Teamsters, his fourth labor endorsement in a week. Union support is expected to be key in the upcoming Ohio and Pennsylvania races.
    Furthermore, in a strategy that must rankle the Clinton team, all-but-sure GOP nominee John McCain is now speaking as if it were a foregone conclusion that he will be running against Obama in the fall. In a victory speech in Wisconsin Tuesday night, McCain contrasted his own national security experience with ‘‘an eloquent but empty call for change,’’ a reference to Obama.
    The Clinton campaign has built a large operation in Texas, opening 20 offices around the state and counting 100,000 volunteers, and she has deep ties to the state.
    ‘‘She has some long-standing advantages. But it’s two weeks to go, and Obama can really do well when he gets in the face of audiences that may have been skeptical about him before,’’ said University of Texas political scientist Bruce Buchanan. ‘‘She has to do more than just win. She has to win by 60-40 — not only in Texas but in Ohio — to maintain real credibility going beyond March 4.’’
    The selection system in Texas — made up of a primary followed immediately by caucuses — appears to favor Obama. Big cities, with heavy black populations, such as Dallas and Houston, get more delegates than rural and heavily Hispanic districts. Clinton was counting on a heavy Hispanic vote.
    Mark Penn, Clinton’s chief strategist, said the campaign has strong organizations and substantial resources in both Texas and Ohio. ‘‘We expect to be in a very good position coming out of those states,’’ he said. He dismissed Obama’s rise in various polls as just a reflection of his recent string of victories, not his underlying strength versus Clinton.
    But unaligned Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin said failure of the former first lady to win in both Texas and Ohio on March 4 could increase pressure among superdelegates and other party officials ‘‘to start rallying around someone and not have this big brawl at the convention.’’
    The stakes are even higher because the Clinton campaign itself ‘‘established the two states as its firewall,’’ Garin said.
    EDITOR’S NOTE — Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

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