Obama inching ever closer to nomination

May 21, 2008 8:47:28 AM PDT
Close to securing the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama is lavishing attention on Florida and its wreckage of a presidential primary while minding his manners with Hillary Rodham Clinton - a rival he now can afford to praise. Obama detoured Wednesday from the campaign for the three remaining primaries - Puerto Rico, Montana, South Dakota - to rally in a state where its renegade primary was disallowed. Clinton, too, was in Florida, pressing to narrow her gap with Obama by having delegates counted from its contest in January.

The Illinois senator was just 65 delegates short of the 2,026 needed to clinch the nomination, after another superdelegate endorsement Wednesday and a pair of primaries the night before.

Clinton thrashed him in Kentucky; he answered by winning Oregon. Connecticut Rep. Joe Courtney, whose district voted for Clinton in the state's Feb. 5 primary won by Obama, padded the Illinois senator's lead with superdelegates by declaring his support. Superdelegates are party insiders who are not tied to the outcome of state contests.

Obama also was set to pick up another big labor endorsement, from the United Mine Workers of America.

Although Obama won most groups of voters in Oregon, other recent primaries including Kentucky's have been polarizing, with large numbers of his supporters and Clinton's digging in behind their candidate and saying they would not vote for the other one in the fall campaign against Republican John McCain.

"If that holds true, then it is a problem," said former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, who experienced devastating party divisions as Democrat George McGovern's campaign manager in 1972. "But I don't think that's going to hold true."

Speaking Wednesday on CNN, he said Obama is right to have turned recently to unifying the party and "he has already, wisely, I think, begun the fall campaign."

McCain addressed an enthusiastic crowd in Miami on Tuesday, Cuba's independence day, and pledged to hold firm against normal trade relations with Cuba until that country honors basic freedoms.

He criticized Obama for saying he would meet President Raul Castro, called the Democrat a "tool of organized labor" for opposing a Latin American trade deal and said his opponent had advocated lifting the trade embargo before shifting his position to say he would merely ease it.

The morning talk shows were barren of the usual candidates or aides trumpeting the previous night's triumph or explaining away a loss, one sign that the rhetoric of the competition is ratcheting down on both sides despite the trio of primaries to come.

Indeed, Obama is now abundant in his praise of a Democratic rival who engaged him fiercely and often bitterly over six months. In his Iowa rally Tuesday night, the man close to becoming the first black Democratic presidential candidate paid tribute to Clinton's historic effort to become the first female president.

"You know, we've had our disagreements during this campaign, but we all admire her courage, and her commitment, and her perseverance," he said. "And no matter how this primary ends, Senator Clinton has shattered myths and broken barriers and changed the America in which my daughters and your daughters will come of age, and for that we are grateful to her."

Democratic rule-makers meet at the end of this month to decide whether to count delegates from Florida and Michigan. Clinton won both states but Obama had his name kept off the Michigan ballot and neither candidate campaigned in those states.

With 88 percent of the vote counted in Oregon, Obama was winning by a 58-42 percent margin. Clinton scored a 35-point win in Kentucky after trouncing him by 41 points in West Virginia last week.

Obama won Oregon with the support of men and young people, but also found plenty of votes from blue-collar workers who have the staple of Clinton victories in other states, according to surveys of voters. As a group, only those making less than $30,000 a year and those over 65 favored Clinton. Women were evenly divided between Obama and Clinton, but men voted for Obama 2-to-1.

Altogether, Obama scored a solid win in a heavily white state, a rare achievement in recent races in which blue-collar whites have powered his rival.

He also secured a majority of the pledged delegates won in primaries and caucuses across the country - a milestone that could help him persuade more superdelegates to endorse him.

"Tonight, in the fullness of spring, with the help of those who stood up from Portland to Louisville, we have returned to Iowa with a majority of delegates elected by the American people and you have put us within reach of the Democratic nomination for president of the United States of America," Obama said.

In Kentucky, Clinton won two-thirds of women and nearly as many men - altogether, seven in 10 whites, who made up nearly 90 percent of the electorate, exit polls indicated. Clinton prevailed among all age, income and education categories, with particularly large margins among lower-earning and less educated voters.

Obama and Clinton ran about even with independents, who were about one in 10 voters in Kentucky. He won a bare majority among those who most valued change as a candidate attribute, but about a quarter cited experience and Clinton won nearly all of them.

As he closes in on the Democratic prize, Obama has been concentrating his campaign more and more on McCain rather than on Clinton.

But Clinton insists she still sees a path to the prize by winning over superdelegates, whose support will be needed for either candidate to be clinch the nomination.

Clinton won at least 56 delegates from Kentucky and Oregon and Obama won at least 43, according to an analysis of election returns by The Associated Press. All 51 delegates from Kentucky were awarded but there were still four of 52 to be allocated in Oregon.

Obama has an overall total of 1,961 delegates, including endorsements from superdelegates. Clinton has 1,779, including superdelegates, according to the latest tally by the AP.