Correction Appended: February 11, 2007
For all of his attempts to downplay expectations, Senator Barack Obama is heading into a weekend that will probably make him look like anything but the underdog. Democrats in four more states are scheduled to cast their ballots, and while they will not be the deciding factors in what remains a virtual dead heat between him and Hillary Clinton, the contests could give Obama an extra boost heading into next week's important Potomac primaries of Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. On a conference call with key Clinton donors on Thursday, the campaign's senior strategist Mark Penn admitted as much; "I think we'll have some bumps in the road, some difficult states in the next week or two."
Louisiana, Nebraska and Washington State are holding contests Saturday and Maine Democrats will caucus on Sunday. There are 228 pledged delegates at stake this weekend, though all of the states will split delegates proportionally, so it's unlikely that either candidate can gain too big an advantage. As it stands now, Obama leads Clinton with 853 pledged delegates to her 849, not including Superdelegates, according to Real Clear Politics.
The caucus format in Washington, Nebraska and Maine could help Obama, who has won six of the seven caucus states so far, thanks to his passionate, dedicated following and stronger grassroots organizations. "I think that it is fair to say that he should win the caucuses in Maine, Nebraska and Washington State on Saturday. For my own state of Louisiana, I would venture that Senator Obama should win here," said Kevin Mulcahy, a political science professor at Louisiana State University, who himself plans on voting for Clinton.
But just because Obama has momentum beating the expectations game on Super Tuesday and continuing to lead Clinton in the money race doesn't mean Clinton, a New York senator and former First Lady, isn't putting up a fight in the weekend's races. Clinton, who still leads in most national polls, is campaigning vigorously in Washington Friday and in Maine Saturday, while her husband, former President Bill Clinton, has headed to Louisiana.
"We are in fierce competition and we have many more rounds to fight," Obama told reporters in Chicago this week. "It's only a month since Iowa. We see how quickly things can change. We have had more twists and turns than anyone could've imagined." Added David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, "These are going to be tough contests. Washington, Nebraska and Louisiana will all be competitive contests, they clearly are going to invest quite a bit of time in Maine. That said, we like our chances to add to our delegate lead."
In Louisiana, where Obama spoke before a crowd of 5,000 on Thursday, more than 40% of registered Democrats are African American, a constituency Obama has consistently won by large margins. Nebraska's caucuses are likely to be similar to those held Tuesday in North Dakota and Kansas Republican-leaning states with small but dedicated Democratic bases that have gone for Obama. Obama also rallied a crowd of 10,000 in Omaha on Thursday, while the only attention the state is seeing from a Clinton was a visit at the same time by first daughter Chelsea. And in Washington State it's the wine-drinking upscale crowd that Obama appeals to, said Lance LeLoup, a Washington State University political science professor. "Washington has a lot of affluent, highly educated liberal voters, a demographic that has tilted toward Obama over Clinton in recent weeks," LeLoup said. "He is also energizing voters, and there is little doubt that there will be record turnout Saturday."
Clinton, who this week acknowledged that she loaned her campaign $5 million of her personal money, is investing relatively substantial resources in Washington. It is one of the few states where she's running television ads, and she spent both Thursday and Friday campaigning in Tacoma, Seattle and Spokane. Her husband was originally scheduled to visit the state, but at the last minute the campaign sent Hillary Clinton herself, dispatching the former President to Louisiana instead. Clinton has the support of much of the political establishment in the state: both of Washington's senators, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, have endorsed her. But Governor Christine Gregoire came out Friday for Obama in a surprising, potentially crucial endorsement.
"If Clinton has a hope in the state it will be that women really seem to be digging in to support her it has become something of a feminist cause in a state that has a traditionally had a very strong female political presence, especially in the Democratic Party," said Cornell Clayton, another Washington State University political science professor. "There is also a large Hispanic population in the middle of the state where there is agriculture. But this group has never been politically mobilized in the way Hispanic voters have in the Southwest [who helped Clinton win California], so it would be a real development if they came out in large numbers for Clinton."
Clinton also has the backing of the establishment in Maine: Governor John Baldacci endorsed her in December. And she won both of Maine's neighboring New England states, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. "Right now Senator Clinton has an advantage up in Maine but we're going to win some delegates up there," Plouffe told reporters Thursday on another conference call. Obama, who spurned a Clinton offer to hold a joint forum there this weekend, plans to visit the state Saturday and has had staff on the ground and ads running there for weeks.
The two candidates have been in a flat-out sprint since December. The fierce struggle for the first four contests left them tied, and Super Tuesday a blizzard of 22 states voting at once was an expensive and exhausting hurdle that did little to determine a victor. Now the race is settling down to a kind of waltz, two states here, three contests there, in the run-up to the next crucial showdown on March 4, when the delegate-rich states of Ohio and Texas hold their primaries. Clinton is banking on those two states, with their large Latino or blue-collar populations, to more than make up for any losses in the next couple of weeks. But the way things have been going so far, neither campaign can reasonably count on coming out of any state with a sizable lead.
The original version of this article contained a quote by Kevin Mulcahy, a political science professor at Louisiana State University, that "Almost all of the states that Senator Obama won on Tsunami Tuesday were caucus states." In fact, Obama won seven primary states and six caucus states on February 5.