“They call Ohio a bellwether state. It’s a battleground state. It’s a state that knows how to pick a president,” Clinton said at a boisterous rally Tuesday night in Columbus. “No candidate in recent history has won the White House without winning the Ohio primary.
“We need a Democratic nominee that can win the battleground states just like Ohio, and that is what we’ve done.”
The candidates split the results in smaller contests with the New York senator winning in Rhode Island and Obama scoring a victory in Vermont.
As of early Wednesday morning, Clinton was the projected winner in the Texas primary, but given the complex set of rules surrounding the delegate selection process — including a caucus that Obama was leading in early returns — there was no clear indication which candidate would garner most of the 193 pledged delegates at stake in the Lone Star State.
The night had started well for Obama, who scored his 12th victory in a row when he handily won in Vermont. The Illinois senator garnered the support of a majority of white women in the state, a group that solidly supported Clinton until recent contests.
But then Clinton broke Obama’s unbeaten streak, scoring a decisive victory in Rhode Island, a state some had termed her “firewall.” Although some polls had the contest tightening in Rhode Island, in the end the former first lady cruised to a 19-point victory.
The news for Clinton only improved from there. By 11 p.m. EST, the New York senator was projected the winner in the one of the two critical tests Tuesday, the presidential bellwether of Ohio.
Clinton, who had seen her core voters slipping away in a recent spate of contests, rebounded in the Buckeye State, garnering widespread support from lower wage earners and white women voters. She did well throughout the state, winning decisive majorities among union members and doing well with voters who were concerned about the economy.
Clinton took direct aim at Obama during a ticker-tape-drenched celebration in Ohio, making it a point to echo her critiques of the Illinois senator’s lack of experience and reliance on rhetoric on the campaign trail.
“Americans don’t need more promises. They’ve heard plenty of speeches. They deserve solutions and they deserve them now,” Clinton told a group of supporters, many of whom chanted “Yes, she can.”
“When there’s a crisis and that phone rings at 3 a.m. in the White House, there is no time for speeches or on-the-job training,” she said, returning to a theme raised in a controversial campaign ad that ran in Texas. “You need to be ready to make the decision.”
Clinton had taken a strong stance in the closing days of the March 4 campaign, blasting Obama over rumored trade talks with Canada and releasing a hard-hitting ad entitled “3 a.m.” that questioned what kind of leader would be ready to tackle an emergency in the middle of the night.
“The Clinton campaign has been trying to take advantage of the fact that she’s been around national politics for a long time. That she’ll be ready on day one. This is sort of a more creative use of that,” University of Texas communications professor Paul Steckler told Austin’s News 8.
Her campaign also took aim at Obama’s record as the chairman of the committee overseeing operations in Afghanistan in another ad running in Texas, a possibly powerful case in a state with 16 active military bases.
“Barack Obama says he has the judgment to be president. But as chairman of an oversight committee charged with the force fighting al-Qaida in Afghanistan, he was too busy running for president to hold even one hearing,” the announcer says in the ad released in the final days of the campaign.
The stepped up attacks on Obama’s record came as his campaign struggled with the fallout from two media stories they had sought to minimize with limited success.
The first involved reports that a senior Obama economic adviser had spoken with Canadian government officials in February. Two different accounts emerged of that meeting between University of Chicago economics professor Austan Goolsbee and the Canadian consul general Georges Rioux.
On Sunday, the Associated Press reported that a memo written by another Canadian official described a meeting where “Goolsbee candidly acknowledged the protectionist sentiment that has emerged, particularly in the Midwest, during the primary campaign. … He cautioned that this messaging should not be taken out of context and should be viewed as more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans.”
Obama and his top campaign officials worked to defuse the story, even as Clinton sought to characterize it as political posturing over a trade agreement that is widely reviled in Ohio and had emerged as a central campaign theme in the state.
Eventually, the Canadian embassy released a statement that said “there was no intention (in the DeMora memo) to convey, in any way, that Sen. Obama and his campaign team were taking a different position in public from views expressed in private, including about NAFTA. We deeply regret any inference that may have been drawn to that effect.”
But even as Obama sought to clarify, correct or at least minimize the impact of the NAFTA dustup, Tony Rezko, a Chicago businessman and Obama fundraiser, went on trial for criminal charges tied to influence peddling in state government.
During a stormy press conference Monday, Obama had to address both the NAFTA story and the Rezko relationship.
“Tony Rezko was a friend and supporter of mine for many years. These charges are completely unrelated to me, and nobody disputes that,” Obama said. “There’s no dispute that he raised money for us, and there’s no dispute that we’ve tried to get rid of it.”
Obama did allegedly receive a $10,000 contribution made by a Rezko associate that is mentioned in the indictment. But Obama’s campaign has long since sent the money to charity.
It was unclear what impact the stories had on Tuesday’s vote, but they were unwelcome distractions as the campaign sought to solidify its case that Clinton ought to end her presidential bid.
Obama entered the balloting with a 110-delegate lead, according to projections from the Associated Press, and sought to strike a confident tone, even in defeat.
“No matter what happens tonight, we have nearly the same delegate lead as we did this morning, and we are on our way to winning this nomination,” Obama told supporters in Texas.
Even before the first results began to trickle in, the Obama team was outlining the basic math problem underlying the Clinton candidacy.
According to forecasts in the remaining 10 states still to vote, the Obama campaign and most analysts expect that unless she is able to decisively win in those contests, she would remain behind Obama in pledged delegates through the remainder of the race.
“The Clinton campaign said this race was all about delegates and that they would be tied or ahead by morning,” said Obama spokesperson Bill Burton in a statement. “But despite the 20-point lead in Ohio and Texas that Senator Clinton had just two weeks ago, we will still be well ahead in delegates tonight and they will have failed at achieving their plainly stated goals.”
If those projections hold up, the Democratic nomination would come down to the super delegates and whether to count the Florida and Michigan contests.
With Clinton emerging from Tuesday’s contests with new momentum, the campaigns move toward a weekend caucus in Wyoming and a primary next week in Mississippi. Analysts pointed to the April 22 contest in Pennsylvania, with its 158 delegates, as the next major test for the campaigns.
In a campaign that has seen some 40 states vote in the first eight weeks, the Keystone State primary is a whopping seven weeks away — posing new challenges for both campaigns as they shift from the breathless sprint of recent contests to a long-term war of attrition for their party’s nomination.