Fire and ice. The fighter versus the conciliator. Experience against change.
There are plenty of story lines to describe the battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the Ohio and Texas primaries on Tuesday. But what it will come down to is winning and losing.
Obama has been creeping up on Clinton in opinion polls. A new CNN survey found that Obama leads Clinton in Texas 48 percent to 45 percent, but that margin is statistically insignificant. In Ohio, a University of Cincinnati poll found Obama ahead 48-47, another virtual tie. If Clinton wins both states—a tall order—or if there is a split decision, the Democratic presidential race probably will go on, with Obama likely to have a slight lead in delegates. If Obama wins Ohio and Texas, it's likely that Clinton can't win the nomination and pressure will grow very intense for her to drop out.
Both candidates got some good news this week. Obama raised $50 million in February, while Clinton raised $35 million, according to campaign sources. This means both candidates will have enough money to compete in the endgame through next week and beyond.
Since John McCain has all but locked up the GOP nomination, most of the media and public attention has focused on the Democratic fight. And last Tuesday's Democratic debate in Ohio sponsored by NBC did little or nothing to change the dynamic of the race. Clinton wanted to somehow trip up her opponent and force him into a mistake. That didn't happen. She also wanted to sharpen the distinctions between them, and in that she succeeded, if only on stylistic terms in which Clinton came across as more combative and angry, while Obama seemed more diplomatic and unflappable.
For Obama, the debate gave him the chance to match Clinton stride for stride in explaining the details of policy, including the sometimes arcane specifics of healthcare legislation. He seemed in command of his facts and didn't lose his cool, which were significant accomplishments. In sum, if voters felt there was a "stature gap" between Clinton and Obama, he might have taken a big step toward closing it in the Ohio debate.
Beyond the debate, Clinton and Obama are emphasizing the economy more than ever. On Thursday, Obama told a crowd in Austin, "We are not standing on the brink of recession because of forces beyond our control. This was not an inevitable part of the business cycle. It was a failure of leadership in Washington—a Washington where George Bush hands out billions of tax cuts to the wealthiest few for eight long years, and John McCain promises to make those same tax cuts permanent, embracing the central principle of the Bush economic program."
For her part, Clinton also campaigned at a hectic pace. During an economic forum in Zanesville, Ohio, she described her plans to relieve the home mortgage foreclosure crisis, provide college aid to students, and reinvest in the manufacturing sector, a particular problem in Ohio. In Hanging Rock, Ohio, she outlined a $6 billion plan to improve childhood nutrition and reduce childhood poverty over 12 years. "The economy is the No. 1 issue in the country," Clinton said.
As he gains on Clinton in the polls, Obama also saw a small but significant movement of superdelegates in his direction. These are about 800 elected officials and party activists who have been given voting power at the Democratic National Convention, and their decisions are not tied to the outcome of state caucuses or primaries. They are empowered to vote their consciences, and a number of them are shifting to Obama, who has won 11 straight nominating contests.
Perhaps the most significant development on this score was the changed allegiance of Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta, an icon of the civil rights movement. An early Clinton supporter, Lewis announced this week that he will vote with the majority of the constituents in his largely African-American district and support Obama. The Illinois senator's strategists hope Lewis's shift will cause many other superdelegates to move Obama's way. About 400 of them remain uncommitted, and the remainder are mostly in Clinton's corner.