Potomac Pummeling

Barack Obama continued his undefeated run through the post-Super Tuesday states yesterday with comfortable, double-digit wins over Hillary Clinton of 23, 29, and 51 points in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, respectively, in the so-called "Potomac Primary." Most critical for the Obama campaign was his landslide win in Virginia, the state where demographics were supposed to have provided Clinton the best opportunity for a win.

"Tonight we won in the state of Maryland. We won in the commonwealth of Virginia. And though we won in Washington, D.C., this movement won't stop in Washington, D.C., and tonight we're on our way," Obama told an estimated crowd of 17,000 cheering supporters in Madison, Wisconsin. "We also know at this moment the cynics can no longer say that our hope is false. We have now won east and west, north and south, and across the heartland of this country we love."

More telling is the fact that Obama proved he could be competitive among, or even win outright, constituencies that had previously tilted toward Sen. Clinton, including white voters, senior citizens, lower-income households, and rural areas. He even did well among Hispanics, the supposed Clinton demographic "firewall," winning them by eight points in Virginia and losing them by just nine points in Maryland. Along with victories in five contests over the weekend, Obama now has a perfect eight-for-eight since he and Clinton essentially split the popular vote and delegate victories in the 22 contests of February 5.

In his Madison speech, the Illinois senator did not mention Clinton, speaking instead as if he were the presumptive nominee. Obama took several swipes across the partisan aisle at Senate colleague John McCain of Arizona, who also swept all three states and is nearly assured of being the Republican nominee. Obama invoked "Bush-McCain Republicans," and suggested that McCain—despite being a war hero Americans should respect for his service—offers America a vision for the country out of touch with what people want and need.

More than a thousand miles away at her own rally in El Paso, Texas, Clinton chose to ignore Tuesday's results, sticking instead to her policy-rich speech, and appealing specifically to Hispanic voters while looking ahead to that state's March 4 primary. "We're going to sweep across Texas in the next three weeks, bringing our message about what we need in America, the kind of president that will be required on Day One, to be commander-in-chief, to turn the economy around," said Clinton, reiterating her central claims about having greater experience. "I'm tested. I'm ready. Let's make it happen."

But Obama is gaining momentum, and while hurdles remain between him and the nomination, his problems are procedural in nature and involve how delegates, not Democrats, are won. He is racking up statewide victories, often by double-digit margins as he did last night, yet creating only a small, if widening, gap between his earned delegate count and Clinton's. His lead among these delegates is so small that Clinton's edge among superdelegates nearly erases it. In football terms, he is completing a lot of passes for short or medium yardage but only moving the ball downfield slightly.

Clinton's problems are different, and perhaps more substantial. All three recent national polls—by AP/Ipsos, Time, and USA Today/Gallup—show her faring worse than Obama would in a potential head-to-head general election matchup against McCain. Clinton also had to lend her campaign $5 million—before promptly raising twice that sum online in a few days—and her campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, stepped aside in favor of longtime Clinton adviser Maggie Williams. Her offense is being kept off the field—as her state's New York Giants kept the New England Patriots sidelined for 10 long minutes to start the Giants' Super Bowl upset earlier this month—until the more favorable battles in Ohio and Texas arrive on March 4.

What, then, does a campaign do when it is losing little relative ground in terms of delegates but gaining no actual victories and winning no news cycles?

If Monday afternoon's Clinton campaign media call is any indication, the strategy seems to be to try to talk about almost anything but the primary results. Until forced by specific questions from reporters, Clinton strategist Mark Penn and communication director Howard Wolfson did not mention any of the three states that voted yesterday. Instead, they rolled out their case for why the former first lady would match up better than Obama against McCain in the November general election—and they played the Comeback Kid card.

"Sen. Obama had the finances to play hard in the states coming after Super Tuesday," Penn said. "But we have the resources coming in, and we will be competitive, especially in the big states next month." Penn also said the Clinton campaign has found itself with its back to the wall, with people writing off the senator, and she keeps coming back, adding: "As we've seen, we have continually gone from a situation where it looks like Sen. Obama is going to carry the day and then voters take a second look and turn back to Sen. Clinton."

But the big question is whether Obama will have sucked all the oxygen out of the race by then, especially if he wins the primaries next week in Wisconsin and Hawaii, thereby rolling into the big-state contests in Texas and Ohio on March 4 with 10 straight victories over four weeks.

At Obama's final campaign stop in the Potomac Primary states, at the Mariner Arena in downtown Baltimore, Rep. Elijah Cummings gave his view of the matter during a rousing introduction of his fellow Congressional Black Caucus member. "This is not a campaign for the presidency of the United States," Rep. Cummings said, piquing the crowd's curiosity. "This is a movement."

Whether it is a movement that can sweep past both Hillary Clinton and John McCain is not clear. But it is now undoubtedly a campaign headed in that direction.

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