Hillary Clinton looked to the Maine caucuses today to put a brake on Barack Obama’s momentum after the Illinois senator won convincingly in four Democratic contests over the weekend to gain an edge in their deadlocked presidential nomination battle.
Both Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama focused their fire on the presumptive Republican nominee John McCain who was embarrassed by poor showings in three Republican contests yesterday.
President George Bush, in an interview aired today, described Mr McCain as a “true conservative, but said the Arizona senator may have to work harder to convince the party’s conservative base that he is one of their own.”
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who beat Mr McCain in Kansas and Louisiana and narrowly lost in Washington state, dismissed as “total nonsense” suggestions that he quit the race so the party could maintain its resources for the November election.
He campaigned today in Lynchburg, Virginia, and vowed to stay in the race until a candidate earns the delegates needed to win the nomination.
“The Democrats haven’t settled their nominee either, so for us to suddenly act like we have to all step aside and have a coronation instead of an election, that’s the antithesis of everything Republicans are supposed to believe,” he said. “We believe competition breeds excellence and the lack of it breeds mediocrity.”
Maine Democrats faced snow and bitter winds as they headed to caucus sites in 420 cities and towns in the north-eastern state to decide how the state’s 24 delegates will be allotted at the party’s national convention in August.
The voting came a day after both Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton made personal appeals at rallies in the state.
Mrs Clinton has the support of the state’s Democratic Governor John Baldacci and benefits from the state’s demographics which resembles that of neighbouring New Hampshire, where she won the primary with strong support from lower-income working-class Democrats. Maine held its Republican caucuses last month.
But Mr Obama has done well in caucuses due to his strong organisation and enthusiastic supporters willing to turn out at these public meetings. He won yesterday’s Nebraska and Washington state caucuses with slightly over two-thirds of the vote.
Mr Obama also rode a wave of support from black voters to win the Louisiana primary on Saturday with 57% of the vote, to 36% for Mrs Clinton. He also notched a victory with nearly 90% of the vote in the US Virgin Islands.
Mrs Clinton needed a victory in Maine, because Mr Obama appeared poised to sweep Tuesday’s so-called Potomac Primary with races in Virginia, Maryland and Washington DC. – all of which have sizeable numbers of black Democrats.
A new poll released today showed Mr Obama leading in Virginia with 53% to Mrs Clinton’s 37%.
Both Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton were campaigning today in Virginia after giving speeches the previous night at the state Democratic Party’s annual fundraising dinner in Richmond, Virginia.
“Today, voters from the West Coast to the Gulf Coast to the heart of America stood up to say ’yes we can”’ Mr Obama told a cheering audience.
Mrs Clinton preceded Mr Obama to the podium. She did not refer to the night’s voting, instead turning against Mr McCain whose virtually assured nomination has forced both Democrats to reshape their strategies and cast themselves as best-suited to defeating him.
“We have tried it President Bush’s way,” the former first lady said, “and now the Republicans have chosen more of the same.”
The New York senator left quickly after her speech, departing before Mr Obama’s arrival. But his supporters made their presence known, sending up chants of “Obama” from the audience as she made her way offstage.
Mr Obama also painted Mr McCain as offering a continuation of unpopular Bush policies in his speech.
“He has made the decision to embrace the failed policies of George Bush’s Washington,” Mr Obama said of Mr McCain. “He speaks of a 100-year war in Iraq and sees another on the horizon with Iran.”
But despite Mr Obama’s string of victories, the historic showdown between the first viable black and female candidates was likely to drag on through the spring and possibly until the party’s national nominating convention in late August in Denver. That’s because the Democrats allocate delegates on a proportional basis and the candidates’ battled to a split decision on Super Tuesday, the biggest day of the campaign with 22 contests.
In all, the Democrats scrapped for 161 delegates in yesterday’s contests. In incomplete allocations, Mr Obama won 72, Mrs Clinton 40, despite his overwhelming margins.
The remaining Democratic calendar for February did not look favourable for Mrs Clinton. But she is looking for a big rebound in the high-stakes March 4 primaries in Texas and Ohio.
In overall totals, Mrs Clinton had 1,095 delegates to 1,070 for Mr Obama, counting so-called super delegates. These are party leaders not chosen at primaries or caucuses, free to change their minds. A total of 2,025 delegates is required to win the nomination at the national convention in Denver.
The Super Tuesday contests made Mr McCain the presumptive Republican nominee as he won hundreds of delegates in winner-take-all states. He has 719 delegates out of a total 1,191 needed to secure the Republican nomination at the party’s convention in St Paul, Minnesota. Mr Huckabee had 234 delegates.
But Mr McCain faltered in his first ballot tests yesterday since his main rival, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, quit the race.
Mr Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister who is a favourite among Christian conservatives, got nearly 60% of the caucus vote in Kansas, winning all 36 delegates at stake. He also won the Louisiana primary, but fell short of the 50% threshold necessary to pocket the 20 delegates that were available. Instead, they will be awarded at a state convention next weekend.
Mr McCain won the Washington state caucuses, but unconvincingly with only 26% of the vote. Mr Huckabee was close behind with 24%, libertarian-learning Texas Republican Ron Paul had 21%, and Mr Romney had 17%, despite quitting the race. None of the state’s delegates will be awarded until next week.
President Bush, in an interview taped for airing on Fox News Sunday, touted Mr McCain’s conservative record.
Mr McCain, a Vietnam prisoner-of-war, “is very strong on national defence,” President Bush said.“ ”He is tough fiscally. He believes the tax cuts ought to be permanent. He is pro-life. His principles are sound and solid as far as I’m concerned.“
But when asked about criticism of Mr McCain by conservative commentators Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, the president said: “I think that if John is the nominee, he has got some convincing to do to convince people that he is a solid conservative and I’ll be glad to help him if he is the nominee.”
President Bush, asked about Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama’s attacks on his own performance, said: “If the Democrat party feels like they can win an election by focusing on me, I think they’ll be making a huge tactical mistake.”