(Washingtonpost.com) Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's victories in Texas, Ohio and Rhode Island reinvigorated her once-shaky presidential candidacy and reshaped her debate with Sen. Barack Obama, but those successes yielded only a modest gain in the battle for delegates, underscoring the daunting odds she faces in overtaking Obama before the end of the primary season in early June.
As a newly confident Clinton (N.Y.) publicly entertained the idea of Obama (Ill.) running as her vice presidential nominee, advisers sketched out a new scenario for overcoming Obama's delegate lead: a Clinton win in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary in April and then persuading the more than 300 uncommitted superdelegates who are poised to decide the race that she would be the stronger general-election nominee.
Obama, who won only the Vermont primary on Tuesday, blamed his poor showing on Clinton's attacks and spent yesterday challenging her national security credentials, as she had done to him in the final days before the Texas and Ohio primaries. He also questioned whether she could truly withstand Republican attacks on ethical issues in a general-election campaign.
Some Democrats fear that a protracted and increasingly negative campaign, coupled with an intensified fight for the allegiance of the superdelegates, could lead to a badly divided Democratic Party and a weakened nominee for the fall campaign against Sen. John McCain.
The senator from Arizona clinched the Republican nomination on Tuesday and received President Bush's endorsement yesterday.
With 370 Democratic pledged delegates at stake on Tuesday, the Associated Press estimated that Clinton had a net gain of just 12 delegates overall with her three victories. Twelve delegates have not yet been allocated. As of yesterday afternoon, she still trailed Obama by 140 pledged delegates, or 101 overall when superdelegates were included. (Click here for the CBS News delegate estimate.)
"They're never even going to get close to erasing the pledged-delegate lead," said David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager. "Last night was a big window that closed for them."
But Harold Ickes, who oversees Clinton's delegate tracking, accused the Obama team of making "a phony distinction" between pledged delegates and superdelegates.
"We expect to be very close to him in overall delegates [at the end of the primaries] and expect that the remaining uncommitted delegates will decide which of the two candidates are the stronger and more prepared to run in the general election," he said. "We're confident that will be Hillary."
Obama has argued that those automatic delegates to the national convention should validate the results of the primaries and caucuses, while Clinton has said they should decide independently who would make the stroner nominee to run against McCain.
Clinton's team has assigned 20 staffers to focus exclusively on the superdelegates, one official said. Over the weekend, the team reached out to every uncommitted delegate amid rumors that Obama was preparing to roll out as many as 50 new endorsements this week. They found no evidence that a big bloc was ready to announce for Obama, but nonetheless made another round of calls to members of the Democratic National Committee on Tuesday.
"Our message to them was 'Keep your powder dry,' " one official said. "Their response was 'We will keep our powder dry.' " In light of Tuesday's results, Clinton's team plans to go back to uncommitted superdelegates with a new plea to back her campaign -- or at least to remain on the fence to await the results of upcoming contests.
Obama returned to Chicago after a disappointing outcome Tuesday in which his winning streak was snapped at 12. Instead of driving Clinton from the race and shifting his focus to McCain, he found himself dragged back into an ever more contentious intraparty fight.
A rejuvenated Clinton predicted she would duplicate her Ohio success in Pennsylvania's April 22 primary and eventually win the nomination.
"I think Democrats took a hard look at John McCain, with his emphasis on national security, and then took a hard look at the two of us and concluded that I'm the best possible candidate to be commander in chief," she said on CBS's "Early Show." "They looked at the economy, and they see that I have a real economic blueprint, and they're not sure where either Senator McCain or Senator Obama stand when it comes to the economy."
In a round of morning television interviews, Clinton also raised the tantalizing prospect of a general-election ticket that would team the two rivals together. "That may, you know, be where this is headed," she said. "But, of course, we have to decide who's on top of the ticket. And I think that the people of Ohio very clearly said that it should be me."
Told of Clinton's comments, Obama said, "I think it is very premature to start talking about a joint ticket."
Obama campaign officials said that he would emerge with more Texas delegates despite losing the popular vote in the primary. They attributed that outcome to what they said would be his wide margin of victory in the state's precinct caucuses, which were held Tuesday night and accounted for one-third of the state's pledged delegates.
As of yesterday afternoon, the Associated Press put Obama's overall total, including pledged delegates and superdelegates, at 1,564 to Clinton's 1,463. Among pledged delegates only, Obama leads by 140.
Twelve contests, with 611 pledged delegates, remain. Obama is likely to end the primaries with a lead in pledged delegates. But neither candidate will be able to reach the 2,025 needed for the nomination, which means the Democratic race ultimately will be settled by the roughly 800 superdelegates -- elected officials and party leaders with automatic seats at the party's national convention.
The closeness of the delegate count and the likelihood of a protracted struggle brought back to the forefront the ticklish question of what the party will do about delegations from Michigan and Florida. The Democratic National Committee sanctioned both states for moving their primaries earlier in violation of rules and denied seating at the Denver convention in late August.
Yesterday, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) and Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D) issued a joint statement demanding that their delegations be seated at both conventions. Republicans stripped the states of half their delegates for similar violations.
Officials in both states indicated they are open to holding new contests to award delegates, although neither has submitted a formal plan to the Democratic National Committee. DNC Chairman Howard Dean, speaking on NPR's "All Things Considered," said that he would welcome such proposals but that simply seating the delegations is not an option.
"Changing the rules halfway through the game is incredibly unfair to both of those candidates and frankly would split the Democratic Party," he said, "so we're not going to do it."
Despite its relief that Clinton's delegate gains appear to be minimal, the Obama campaign was stung by the big losses in Ohio and Texas. Advisers plan to spend the next few days brainstorming ways to regain Obama's momentum. Out the window went plans for economic summits and foreign visits. Instead, the campaign braced for what could prove to be the most bruising phase of the battle yet.
"The core of our campaign has worked very, very well," Plouffe said. But he added: "We're obviously not going to let these attacks go unanswered."
He said Clinton has exaggerated her foreign policy experience, and he made it clear that Obama will go after her on the issue. He also made a veiled reference to Clinton administration scandals such as Whitewater. "We're surprised they would want to have an extended conversation about contributors and land deals and ethics issues," Plouffe said.
Murray, traveling with Obama, reported from Chicago.
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