Barack Obama erased Hillary Rodham Clinton’s once imposing lead among superdelegates in their epic race for the Democratic nomination and turned his attention to the expected campaign against Republican John McCain.
Obama picked up more superdelegate endorsements and surpassed Clinton as he campaigned yesterday in Oregon, whose primary is on May 20.
The milestone is important because Clinton would need to win over the superdelegates by a wide margin to claim the nomination. They are a group that Clinton owned before the lead off Iowa caucus in early January, when she was able to cash in on the popularity of the Clinton brand among the party faithful.
Obama added superdelegates from Utah, Ohio, and Arizona as well as two from the Virgin Islands who had previously backed Clinton. He had picked up nine endorsements on Friday.
Superdelegates are the party and elected officials who will automatically attend the Democratic national convention in August in Denver. They can support whoever they choose, regardless of what happens in the primaries.
They are key because the Democratic race has been so close that neither Obama nor Clinton can win the nomination without them.
“I always felt that if anybody establishes himself as the clear leader, the superdelegates would fall in line,” said Don Fowler, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
“It is perceived that he is the leader,” said Fowler, a superdelegate from South Carolina who supports Clinton. “The trickle is going to become an avalanche.”
Saying he still has not secured the nomination, Obama nonetheless entertained several questions about the likely outlines of a contest against McCain, saying the autumn election will be more about specific plans and priorities than about questions of political ideology or who is more patriotic.
Barely mentioning Clinton, Obama said he was open to campaigning with McCain in “town hall” events in which the candidates take questions from voters. But he also warned that controversial issues such as McCain’s ties to the Keating Five savings and loan scandal are fair game, and he called McCain’s proposal for a temporary halt this summer to the federal gasoline tax a political gimmick.
He did not mention that Clinton supports a similar plan.
Obama said McCain has received “a free pass” while he and Clinton have battled for months.
McCain, he said, “has a straight-talker image, but it’s not clear that lately he’s been following through on that image. I mean, this gas tax holiday was a pander. He didn’t even have a way of paying for it.”
The McCain campaign noted that Obama, as an Illinois state senator, once voted for a temporary gas tax suspension. Obama now says he made a mistake.
Many party leaders feel it is only a matter of time before the former first lady must concede defeat. But Clinton forged ahead yesterday, holding a fundraiser for her cash-strapped campaign in New York.
“Let’s keep going, stay with me, this is a great adventure and we’re going to make history,” she told the crowd of several hundred people, most of them women.
She barely mentioned Obama in a speech that focused on issues like equal pay for women, only noting their differences on health care and the gas tax.
She said it would be “exciting to have the first mother in the White House”.
Clinton is favoured to win Tuesday’s primary in West Virginia where polls show her leading Obama by as much as 40 percentage points in a state where her strongest supporters, white working-class voters, make up a substantial portion of the Democratic electorate.
But that was likely to be one of the last hurrahs for her campaign to become the first female US president. Clinton has struggled to raise money in recent weeks, and was set back further last Tuesday when she squeaked by with a narrow win in Indiana while Obama won handily in North Carolina.
Clinton has repeatedly vowed to remain in the race until the last of the six remaining nominating contests is waged in early June, but Obama was already looking ahead to the general election campaign. He said he soon will campaign in Michigan and Florida, two battleground states whose Democratic primaries were essentially nullified by party disputes, angering many voters. He was making a campaign stop on Tuesday in Missouri, which has already held its primary election.
Speaking with reporters in Bend, Oregon, Obama brushed aside suggestions that the presidential campaign may be largely about his race, liberalism or patriotism, saving voters will have “a very clear choice on policy”.
Obama said he realises he must continue introducing himself to millions of Americans who do not know him well, and acknowledged that some question his patriotism because he no longer wears a lapel flag pin.
He said the test of patriotism “is whether we are true to the ideals and values upon which this country was founded,” and willing to fight for them “even when it’s politically inconvenient”.
Democratic party insiders increasingly want to see the historic but contentious nominating contest come to a conclusion. Many of the superdelegates who endorsed Obama in the past week said it is time for the party to unite behind him.
In all, Obama added five superdelegates late Friday and yesterday. Clinton added one in Massachusetts, but lost the two in the Virgin Islands.
In the overall race for the nomination, Obama has 1,864.5 delegates and Clinton has 1,697, according to the latest AP tally. Obama is just 160.5 delegates shy of the 2,025 needed to secure the Democratic nomination.