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A Win, But No Victory

For weeks, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign has been dogged by a simple question: Given Sen. Barack Obama’s lead in the delegate count – as well as his lead in the popular vote and the number of states won — what path could she take to the Democratic presidential nomination?

Clinton’s answer has been built around two intertwining strategies. She has waited for Obama (D-Ill.) to make a mistake – with hopes of exploiting it – and focused her appeal to superdelegates, the party leaders and activists whose support is essential if she is to become the Democratic nominee.

That’s because even a big win would do little to erase Obama’s delegate lead, and each passing contest cuts the time she has to do so. Even drawing close in the popular vote – which Clinton supporters say she would use as a “calling card” with superdelegates – is increasingly out of reach.

As Bloomberg put it Monday, “To earn that split decision [in the popular vote], though, Clinton would need a 25-point victory in Pennsylvania, plus 20-point wins in later contests in West Virginia, Kentucky and Puerto Rico. Even that scenario assumes Clinton, 60, would break even in Indiana, North Carolina, South Dakota, Montana and Oregon — a prospect that’s not at all certain.”

But, perhaps more important than that math, the past weeks have shown the limits to Clinton’s current approach. Her relentless attempts to pounce on Obama’s mistakes have only underscored some of the weaknesses of her candidacy and boosted her negative ratings, while failing to improve voters’ image of herself. The result is an electorate that is growing weary of the negative tone of politics and a lagging campaign with fewer and fewer choices about how to proceed.

“She doesn’t have a lot of tools left,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a progressive think tank and advocacy group. “Sen. Clinton has done everything she can to alter the dynamics of the race, and everything she has done has failed.”

Nonetheless, Clinton appears determined to keep hammering away at Obama. Her latest line of attack is comments he made in Reading on Sunday. "You have a real choice in this election. Either Democrat would be better than John McCain," Obama said. "And all three of us would be better than

Clinton moved quickly to capitalize on the remarks, insisting at her campaign stops later in the day that McCain would continue many of Bush’s policies. "We need a nominee who will take on John McCain, not cheer on John McCain," she said in Johnstown, "and I will be that nominee."

Earlier this month, Clinton appeared to get the Obama misstep she had been waiting for when reports surfaced of his comments at a San Francisco fund-raiser on Apr. 6, in which he suggested that small-town Americans “get bitter” and cling to guns and religion when times get tough.

The Clinton team pounced, casting Obama as elitist and out-of-touch. “Pennsylvanians don’t need a president who looks down on them,” Clinton told a crowd near Philadelphia. “They need a president who stands up for them, who fights for them, who works hard for your futures, your jobs, your families.”

That tough response helped keep the “bitter” comments in the news in the state for 10 days. They quickly became a part of Clinton’s pitch to superdelegates and other elites, as she argued that her opponent’s low regard for working class voters would make him a weak general election candidate against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the presumptive Republican nominee.

But Clinton’s attacks – and the continuing coverage of her false statements about arriving in Bosnia under sniper fire when she was first lady – also served to drive up her own negative ratings, another factor that superdelegates are weighing. A Newsweek poll late last week found that 47 percent of registered voters view Clinton as unfavorable, compared to 40 percent in March. Over the same period, her favorable rating dipped from 56 percent to 49 percent.

"They made a strategic decision over the last six weeks that they had to go negative," Rosenberg said. "But over that period, her negatives have gone up without her positives going up."

The campaign has had an effect on Obama, too. His favorable rating in the Newsweek poll was 57 percent, down 4 percent points from March, and his unfavorable rating increased to 36 percent from 28 percent.

Clinton faces other hurdles as well. Obama has far outpaced her in fund-raising, allowing him to outspend her by a wide margin in Pennsylvania, and leaving him with the resources to do the same in future contests. Reports filed by the campaigns Sunday with the Federal Election Commission show that Clinton began the month with $10.3 million in debt and just $9 million in cash on hand for the primaries, while Obama had $42 million available for the primaries.

In recent days, Clinton announced that she had gained the support of four superdelegates: Jim Florio and Brendan Byrne, both former New Jersey governors, and Rep. Betty Sutton and Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio. But Obama continues to outpace her on this front as well — and many uncommitted superdelegates say they have not been persuaded by Clinton’s arguments about electability.

Nonetheless, the Clinton campaign appears determined to keep its focus on the superdelegates.

Howard Wolfson, Clinton’s communications director, told reporters on a conference call Monday that if Obama fails to win in Pennsylvania – after outspending Clinton by a three-to-one margin in the state – “it will once again raise very serious questions among voters and superdelegates about whether Sen. Obama can win the big swing states that any Democrat would have to win in November.”

“Ultimately that’s what superdelegates and other party leaders are focused on,” Wolfson said. “They want a candidate who can win.”

Geoff Garin, Clinton’s new top strategist, told reporters Monday that after the remaining 10 primaries, he expects “a very, very close race. It’s in that environment that the elected officials of the Democratic Party, and our party leaders, will have to exercise their good judgment in good conscience about who can best lead the party to victory and who can best lead the country.” Garin, an affable and respected pollster, took over this month after revelations that Mark J. Penn, Clinton’s combative previous top strategist, had met with Colombian officials in his role as a public relations executive to help promote a U.S.-Colombia trade deal — an agreement that the New York senator opposes.

Obama campaign officials have tread carefully, stopping short of calling for Clinton to leave the race. But David Axelrod, Obama’s top strategist, warned Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press that, “if the strategy ultimately becomes, ‘We can’t win the delegate count, we really can’t win the nomination on the legit, so we’re going to apply the kitchen sink strategy and tear down Sen. Obama and see if we can destroy him in order to advance our own candidacy,’ that is damaging, that is bad for the party.”

Rosenberg, a veteran of former president Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign team, said Obama’s campaign has suffered weaknesses of its own, including insufficient attention to economic issues and a reluctance to attack Clinton in a way that may be needed to close the deal – though a tough new ad released over the weekend in Pennsylvania may signal a change.

For Clinton, though, the options are dwindling. “They tried a strategy,” Rosenberg said. “It didn’t work, but it may be the only strategy they have.”

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