Barack Obama has almost tied with Hillary Clinton in the crucial superdelegate count that she once dominated, with the slew of new support offering one of the clearest signs yet that her Democratic White House bid is nearly over.
After a gruelling duel marked by bouts of acrimony and bitterness, the Democratic race for the presidential nomination entered its final weeks, if not days, with electoral mathematics the deciding factor.
Mrs Clinton, unlikely to be able to erase Mr Obama’s 1,859.5 to 1,698 lead in delegates, needs massive support from those superdelegates – party leaders free to vote as they chose – who have yet to declare their preference.
With Mr Obama also unable to reach the 2,025 delegates needed to win the nomination based solely on elected delegates, that same group offered the key to his securing the party’s stamp.
The support of nine superdelegates yesterday was the latest in a steady trickle since he crushed Mrs Clinton in North Carolina and narrowly lost Indiana on Tuesday. Mrs Clinton gained two superdelegates yesterday.
Mr Obama’s quiet, and increasing, confidence that the nomination is his was evident in his campaigning yesterday in Oregon, where he focused his criticism on Republican John McCain and largely ignored his Democratic rival.
Mr Obama said in Woodburn, Oregon: “I’m gratified that we’ve got some superdelegates who are coming our way. And I think we’ve got a strong case to make that I will be a nominee that can pull the party together and take on John McCain.”
The 46-year-old Illinois senator, his sights set on making history as the US’s first black president, said the presumptive Republican nominee would continue failed Bush administration priorities.
He pointedly criticized Mr McCain’s economic, health and Iraq policies, but steered clear of criticising Mrs Clinton, continuing a strategy of avoiding antagonising her or her supporters.
The push was calculated, and evidenced in his gentle efforts to nudge uncommitted superdelegates – about 250 out of the nearly 800 total – to his camp. Little more than four months ago, on the eve of the primary season, Mrs Clinton held a lead of 169-63.
Mrs Clinton, campaigning nearby in the Portland, Oregon, area, focused instead on the only real chance she had left to extend the life of her once-powerful candidacy: somehow derailing Mr Obama.
For that, she turned to the issues. At a meeting at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, she criticised Mr Obama’s healthcare plan for promising universal coverage to children but not adults.
“This is a big difference in this campaign. It’s not a difference of politics so much as commitment. How can anyone run to be the Democratic nominee and not have a universal health care plan?” she asked.
Mrs Clinton picked up two new superdelegates – a congressman from Pennsylvania representing a district that voted overwhelmingly in favour of the former first lady in the April 22 Pennsylvania primary, and a congressman from Texas.
By campaigning in Oregon, Mr Obama had his sights not only on a primary win, but also a perennial battleground state between the Democratic and Republican parties.
Speaking to a few dozen employees of a software company, Mr Obama said Mr McCain was “dead wrong when he said recently that he thinks our economy has made ’great progress’ under George Bush. Is there anyone outside of Washington DC who could truly believe that?”
The McCain campaign issued a lengthy rebuttal to Mr Obama’s remarks. It accused him of seeking unwise hikes in taxes and spending.
Mr Obama did not mention Mrs Clinton until an employee asked about their respective healthcare plans. He acknowledged Mrs Clinton’s criticisms, but said the government should not penalise low-income adults who choose not to buy health insurance even with a significant government subsidy.
When asked if he might make Mrs Clinton his running mate, Mr Obama said it would be presumptuous to speculate because “I have not won this nomination yet”.
“But I will say that she has shown herself to be an extraordinary candidate and an extraordinary public servant,” he said. “She is hardworking, she is tough, she is very smart. And so I think she would be on anybody’s list, shortlist, of vice presidential candidates.”
Mr Obama predicted Mrs Clinton will win the Kentucky and West Virginia primaries “by significant margins”, although he will campaign in those states next week.
Mrs Clinton has repeatedly vowed to remain in the race until the last of the six remaining state contests is waged next month. But more than her campaign’s financial woes, it was the steady stream of delegates for Mr Obama that hinted this race was nearing its end.
New Jersey Representative Donald Payne, who announced his decision yesterday, is one of at least 10 superdelegates who have switched allegiance from Mrs Clinton to Mr Obama. None has publicly switched the other way.
Mr Obama also picked up the endorsement of the influential American Federation of Government Employees union yesterday.