Can Obama Keep the Momentum?

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Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty

U.S. Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama speaks during a rally at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, on February 10, 2008.

On the heels of larger-than-expected victories in three states this weekend, Barack Obama is heading into Tuesday's primaries in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia with momentum, money and a small but growing lead in the delegate count. As much as he prefers to play the underdog role, three decisive wins on Tuesday could make him, at least for now, the undisputed Democratic front-runner.

That has been a dubious honor in this year's chaotic Democratic race, especially for Hillary Clinton, who comes into the so-called Potomac Primaries after a challenging week. Not only did she admit to loaning her cash-strapped campaign $5 million in order to keep pace with Obama ahead of Super Tuesday, but on Sunday Clinton replaced her campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle with long-time confidante Maggie Williams, and Monday she had to reassure some nervous donors and endorsers that the nomination was still within her reach. Still, Clinton is nowhere near being counted out: she has raised more than $10 million online since Super Tuesday, she still leads in most national polls and is making a big push to be competitive in Virginia, where her campaign has been headquartered for nearly a year.

Both campaigns, as has been customary in recent weeks, sought to lower expectations ahead of the contests. Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, an Obama supporter, warned reporters on a conference call over the weekend that Clinton "has a lot of significant Virginia expertise on her campaign team," including some of his former advisers. Added David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager in another conference call with reporters: "We expect these to be very, very competitive races. In the Virginia primary, her headquarters are there, her senior staff is very steeped in Virginia elections. And in Maryland, Senator Clinton has the support of the governor and a lot of political support in the state."

Conversely, the Clinton campaign has stressed that both states' large African-American populations, a demographic Obama has won by large margins in every state so far, would make Obama hard to beat. Mo Elleithee, a Clinton campaign spokesperson, said that "Senator Obama's got a lot of built-in advantages across the region. Having said that, we will be able to do well enough to win our fair share of delegates."

Clinton herself has already started to shift the focus away from this week's contests to Ohio and Texas, which vote on March 4. With their large Hispanic and working-class populations, Clinton's staff and many observers have believed the two delegate-rich states will be more friendly territory for her campaign, but increasingly they are viewed as must-wins, her last chance at the nomination—so much so that she is traveling to Texas on Tuesday. "I believe if you look at the states ... upcoming, I am very confident," Clinton told reporters after touring a General Motors plant outside Baltimore, before turning her fire on the media. "Before Super Tuesday you all were reporting on all the momentum. It didn't turn out to be true. Let's have the elections. Instead of talking about them, pontificating and punditing, let's let people actually vote."

At the same time, Mark Penn, her chief strategist, held a conference call this afternoon to try out a new attack line against Obama, underlining Clinton's electability and her proven record of having withstood the glare of the public eye for so many years as First Lady. "The G.O.P. attack machine skewed the perceptions of such distinguished public servants as Al Gore and John Kerry," he said adding the Obama would "evaporate relatively quickly once he faced the Republicans."

Regardless of the spin coming from both camps, there is no denying that Obama holds double-digit leads in most polls of Maryland and Virginia likely voters. "Maryland and Virginia both seem likely to go for Obama," said Clyde Wilcox, a political science professor at Georgetown University in Washington. "Both have substantial African-American populations, and although not all blacks vote for Obama he certainly does well in that group. Both states are relatively well educated, which is a demographic that Obama has carried very well in past primaries. Both states have done relatively okay financially the past several years, which again makes them more likely to go for Obama."

After the first 26 contests Obama and Clinton remained neck-and-neck in the pledged delegate count. But this past weekend Obama won by wide margins in Washington State, Nebraska, Maine and the U.S. Virgin Islands, in addition to a tight but impressive victory in Louisiana. If he overwhelmingly wins the so-called Potomac Primaries, where 237 delegates are at stake, he could start to break away from Clinton, especially since he's also favored in the next two states due to vote on February 19, his native Hawaii and Wisconsin, next door to his home state of Illinois. If Clinton can pull off a stronger-than-expected showing — or even a win — in Virginia, it could give her a much-needed boost in the run-up to Texas and Ohio. Obama now actually leads Clinton in delegates 1,143 to 1,138; it takes 2,025 delegates to win the nomination. Not counting Super delegates — fickle lawmakers and party leaders who may endorse a candidate but often change their minds — Obama leads Clinton 1,004 to 925, according to Real Clear Politics, a website that is tracking the delegate count.

In addition to investing in television and radio ads here, Clinton, her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and their daughter Chelsea spent the weekend campaigning across the Chesapeake Bay area. "Right now polls have Obama with a lead in the state, but the Clinton campaign is putting a lot of effort here, indicating that they have not given up on Virginia," said Mark Rozell, a political science professor at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia. "Certainly the immediate schedule favors building some momentum for Obama, and that could help him solidify his existing advantages in the Potomac primary states."

The Maryland and Virginia contests, which are open to all voters, could also have general election implications, testing Obama's appeal to independent and Republican voters. The Republican front-runner, Arizona Senator John McCain, is expected to win both G.O.P. primaries, but pundits and analysts will be examining the results to see how many Republicans may have switched over and which way the independents went: for Obama or McCain, who also has a history of appealing to voters across the aisle.