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Democratic Strategists Brace for Tight Races

If Sen. Barack Obama becomes the Democratic nominee for president, the past week will be seen as a pivotal moment when Sen Hillary Rodham Clinton lost her air of inevitably and her campaign began to grapple publicly with the difficult challenges it faces.

In the days between the Feb. 12 Potomac Primary – when Obama made inroads among the women and blue-collar voters who have been among Clinton’s strongest backers – and Tuesday’s vote in Wisconsin, the Clinton campaign has adopted a new slogan, launched negative ads and struggled to hold on to high-profile endorsements.

The moves show that Clinton’s campaign has been shaken by Obama’s eight straight wins. They also mark a realization that fresh victories for him in Wisconsin, and in caucuses the same day in Hawaii, where he spent much of his childhood, would add to Obama’s new momentum. But in a campaign that has bounced back and forth, it remains to be seen whether energy and enthusiasm will remain with Obama long enough to deliver the nomination — or whether it will return again to Clinton’s side.

Clinton began the primary race with an edge over Obama in Wisconsin, but recent polls give Obama a narrow lead in the state, which has a history of surprises in Democratic primaries. Clinton’s decision to leave a day earlier than planned was seen by some as a concession that she would not win there — though bad weather Sunday was expected to extended her stay in the state Monday.

Faced with a string of February defeats, Mark Penn, Clinton’s top strategist, has stressed the see-saw nature of the primary campaign from the earliest days, when Clinton followed Obama’s win at the Iowa caucuses with her own victory in New Hampshire. “Just when things look like they’re going in one direction, they go in another direction,” he told reporters last week. “We expect change to begin March 4,” he said, with delegate-rich primaries in Texas and Ohio, followed by Pennsylvania on April 22.

Clinton leads Obama in recent polling in all three states, and Obama’s campaign knows the contests will provide further tests of whether he can broaden his base beyond the young, African-American and better-educated voters who have supported him so far. David Axelrod, Obama’s top strategist, said Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation, “We’d never count her out in this race.”

But the growing possibility that the primary process may not yield a candidate with the 2,025 delegates needed to claim the nomination gives the recent shifts in mood and energy added importance, shaping how party leaders feel about each candidate. While the Clinton campaign acknowledged for weeks that Obama would do well this month, it appears to have underestimated how much those wins would bolster popular perceptions of his candidacy. Such sentiment would be crucial if the decision falls to superdelegates, the elected officials and party activists who make up 20 percent of the delegate count and are free to cast their votes as they wish.

Kathleen Sebelius, the governor of Kansas and an Obama supporter, called on Clinton on Saturday to stop discounting the votes of red-state Democrats. “We can’t tell people their votes don’t matter and then expect their support against John McCain in November,” Sebelius said.

Clinton has also stressed her pledge to provide universal healthcare, and contrasted it with Obama’s plan, which focuses on lowering costs. “I’m the only candidate left in either party with a plan to cover every single American,” Clinton said Saturday night at the Wisconsin Democratic Party’s Founders’ Day Gala in Milwaukee.

Clinton’s campaign aired television ads that underscored the differences in their healthcare plans and attacked Obama for refusing to debate her in the state. “Wisconsin deserves better,” the ads said. The ads mark the first strategic shift in the campaign since Patti Solis Doyle, Clinton’s campaign manager, was replaced by Maggie Williams, another member of Hillaryland, as Clinton’s inner circle is known. Williams was Clinton’s chief of staff in the White House and earned a reputation as a devoted aide — and powerful enforcer — for the First Lady.

The decision to air negative ads — reflecting a belief that Obama is vulnerable on health care, or just how scared the Clinton camp is about the campaign’s current dynamic — carries risks, including the possibility that it will remind voters of the kind of attack-machine politics sometimes favored by the Clintons. Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, who is supporting Obama, said the negative ads were “more of the politics [Obama] is talking about doing away with,” and criticized Clinton’s short time campaigning in the state. “She hasn’t reached out to voters at all, except through these negative ads,” he said.

Clinton tried on Saturday to revive her support among women, recalling her attendance at the 1995 United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing, where she declared, “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights."

Her campaign has also sought in recent days to use Obama’s sometimes soaring rhetoric against him, contrasting what it says is her experience with his calls for change in the hopes that, as a decision about the party’s nominee approaches, primary voters will reconsider his readiness for the job. “She is in the solutions business,” Penn said, “and that is in sharp contrast to an opponent who is in the promise business.”

Obama, speaking at the same Milwaukee event shortly after Clinton, confronted those charges head-on. “All of us should be in the solutions business,” Obama said, “but all too often it’s business as usual.”

A bit later in his speech, though, Obama may have caused a new problem. "Don’t tell me words don’t matter," he said. "’I have a dream’ — just words. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’ — just words. ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself’ - just words. Just speeches." It didn’t take long for video to surface of Deval Patrick, the Massachusetts governor — and another Axelrod client — uttering virtually the same words during his 2006 campaign.

As Obama campaigned across Wisconsin in recent days, he has sharpened his economic message. Speaking on the floor of a General Motors plant in Janesville – a day after GM announced record losses – he vowed to invest $150 billion over ten years to build a green energy sector and create millions of new jobs.

Obama last week received the endorsement of the Service Employees International Union, which vowed to activate its members in the remaining primary states, on his behalf. Such appeals to working-class voters will be essential if Obama is to retain his momentum as the primary calendar turns to Ohio and Pennsylvania, where manufacturing jobs have been hit hard.

But Clinton’s camp believes her support among Latinos will help her in Texas, and that her strength among blue-collar workers will continue. “We are seeing that our coalition is strong in both Ohio and Texas, and ultimately in Pennsylvania,” Penn said. “I’m sure that the polls will tighten and there will be momentum, but we’ve been through this before.”

On this point, Axelrod seems to agree. "It’s not over," he said. And the only thing that really matters is who is ahead when it is.

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