Clinton, Obama Race is About to Get Nasty

Clinton's big wins keep her in a race that's about to get nastier.

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It's not over. Not by a long shot. Just when Barack Obama seemed to be gaining the upper hand in the Democratic presidential race, there was another surprise. Hillary Clinton scored key victories in three primaries—Ohio, Texas, and Rhode Island—and injected new life into her campaign. At a minimum, she stopped Obama's momentum after he had won 11 consecutive contests. But just as important, she ensured that the battle for the nomination would go on, fought more fiercely than ever, for several more weeks, and possibly all the way to the party's nominating convention in August.

Relishing her surge—her third comeback of the campaign after losing Iowa, then failing in South Carolina, and most recently losing those 11 straight—Clinton was understandably jubilant. "For everyone here in Ohio and across America who's ever been counted out but refused to be knocked out," she said at a rally in Columbus, "for everyone who has stumbled but stood right back up, and for everyone who works hard and never gives up, this one is for you."

But her road is still a rough one. Despite Clinton's three victories and her success at holding Obama to only one win on March 4 in Vermont, she still trails in the overall delegate count by about 100 votes. After last week's contests, Obama had 1,567 and Clinton had 1,462, according to the Associated Press, with 2,025 needed for the nomination. About 600 pledged delegates are yet to be chosen.

Since the Democratic contests are proportional, rather than winner-take-all, it will be very difficult for Clinton, a senator from New York, to overtake Obama, a senator from Illinois, before the August convention. By some calculations, she needs to win more than 60 percent of the remaining pledged delegates to catch up, and that is an almost impossible task unless the Obama campaign implodes.

But Obama's path is not so smooth, either. Even though he's leading, it's very unlikely that he can reach a majority by convention time. Still, he puts on a brave face. "We are on our way to winning this nomination," he insists.

Superdelegates. There is a solution. The winning margin could be chosen by the nearly 800 "superdelegates"—elected officials, party leaders, and activists—who vote at the convention but aren't bound by the results of state contests. More than 350 of them remain publicly uncommitted, and a big swing to Clinton or Obama could determine the winner. But if that happens, the Democrats will open themselves up to charges that their nomination was decided by the party elite.

On the day after her victories, Clinton raised the tantalizing possibility that she might take Obama as her vice presidential running mate and create a unity ticket. The idea caused a stir, but seemed both unrealistic and premature. Since Obama is closer to the nomination than Clinton is, it's doubtful that he would settle for second place. Likewise, it's hard to see Clinton as Obama's No. 2.

There is also the tug of war over the disputed primaries in Florida and Michigan. The Democratic National Committee disqualified all of those delegates after the states scheduled the primaries too early in the nominating process, violating DNC rules. Clinton won both states and now she wants the delegates counted. Obama opposes that idea, saying neither he nor Clinton campaigned in Florida or Michigan, so counting the delegates would be unfair. To settle the issue, party leaders are considering a "do-over," holding another caucus or primary in each state.

But Democratic officials still hope one candidate gains a majority before the issue reaches a crisis point. And to that end, the race now enters what will probably be its most negative stretch. Clinton and her advisers believe she gained considerable traction—and solidified her base of lower-income white voters, seniors, Latinos, and women—by attacking Obama on several fronts, so her attacks will, if anything, get more intense.

Her main arguments, aides say, will be that Obama is inexperienced, that he has done little in the Senate, and that he isn't ready to be commander in chief or the main "steward" of the economy. Voters might also see a reprise of the controversial ad suggesting that Obama isn't ready to answer a 3 a.m. phone call at the White House signaling a crisis. Meanwhile, the Clintonites will continue to hammer at Obama's credibility and his association with indicted Chicago businessman Tony Rezko.