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Clinton's Daunting Road Ahead

U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) speaks at Ohio University Southern Campus Child Development Center on Thursday in Hanging Rock, Ohio. (Getty Images)

By Dan Balz
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- "I'm not telling you anything you don't know ... already," said Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. "I would merely agree with all of the observations that have been made."

As benign and neutral as that statement may sound, it is not good news for Hillary Clinton, for it accentuates Redfern's conclusion that, while Ohio is Clinton's to win next Tuesday, "the question is by how much."

Like other party officials and Democratic strategists, Refern is looking closely at the math and has decided that a victory alone may not be enough for the New York senator. She needs a big victory.

"Pragmatically," he said, "we all get the fact that it's about delegates, and to avoid superdelegates, court actions, Michigan and Florida being seated, all that kind of stuff, Senator Clinton I think needs a real boost in Ohio and -- not or -- Texas going into the next six weeks, if in fact she stays for the next six weeks.... In the starkest of terms, this is pretty simple. She's got to win by a margin which gets her a boost in delegates."

That conclusion could have come straight from the talking points of Barack Obama's campaign, enunciated again Friday morning by campaign manager David Plouffe. While Redfern is neutral in the Democratic nomination contest, he and others have begun to echo those arguments. Even some Clinton advisers privately acknowledge the steep hill facing their candidate because of Obama's string of victories and his current delegate lead.

Victories in both Ohio and Texas would be incentive enough to continue her candidacy into Pennsylvania, but if Obama emerges with no significant damage to his delegate advantage, her prospects for ending the primaries with a lead in pledged delegates remain daunting, even if she were to win most of the remaining contests by a hefty margin. She needs a showing that will both add to her pledged delegate total and reverse the current flow of superdelegates in Obama's direction.

The state headquarters of both the Clinton and Obama campaigns, which are only a few blocks apart here in downtown Columbus, testify to the effort both sides are throwing into Ohio. The offices are overflowing with staff and volunteers. The press shop at Obama's headquarters is a tiny windowless room with at least five people crammed together fielding calls. At the Clinton offices, volunteers young and old are making phone calls and helping organize get-out-the-vote activities.

Both campaigns have sent in some of their best organizers. Paul Tewes, who ran Obama's operation in the Iowa caucuses, now oversees the Ohio operation. Robby Mook, who organized Clinton's Nevada caucus efforts, is now directing traffic here in Ohio.

Some of the stories of the reach of the campaigns border on the astonishing. Obama's campaign, for example, has such an extensive voter-contact operation that the Illinois senator's workers are calling hard-core Republican households reminding them that they can take a Democratic ballot next Tuesday if they wish. When Obama held daytime rallies in Cincinnati and Columbus over the past week, the campaign had buses waiting outside to take anyone who wanted to vote early to a polling place.

When Clinton's team arrived in early February to establish an operation, they were able to tap into an indigenous grass-roots organization as well as the political network of Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, Clinton's most prominent supporter in the state. "The campaign really was already up and running when we got here," said one senior Clinton organizer. He added, "They understood the importance of what we were doing. I also think they understood the urgency."

An Obama organizer agrees: "Because of the governor, they were a little better prepared than we were. They were here before we were."

As a result, said another Clinton organizer, "I don't think that the Obama momentum has swamped the support we've seen at the grass-roots level, especially in smaller communities all across the state."

The geography of the Obama-Clinton battle in Ohio is instructive. Obama hopes to maximize his support and his delegates in the three C's -- Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, the big population centers of the state. The 11th Congressional District in Cleveland, a heavily African American district represented in the House by Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, a Clinton supporter, will award eight delegates on Tuesday, the most of any district in the state.

Clinton is looking to maximize support elsewhere. Former president Bill Clinton will spend Friday in smaller cities north of Columbus and south of Cleveland -- Findlay, Marion, Mansfield, Wooster -- that form an arc across the central part of the state. With Strickland's encouragement, both Clintons have devoted significant amounts of time to rural southeast Ohio and areas of Appalachia. The New York senator's campaign also is aiming for votes along the state's western corridor.

Supplementing the ground operations are saturation-level television commercials. In this battle, the Obama campaign, with the help of independent expenditure ads by the Service Employees International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers, is swamping Clinton's by roughly four to one, according to a Clinton official.

That is not because Clinton is being stingy. The number of ads she is running in Ohio, according to this Clinton official, approximates what a Senate candidate would be doing in the state in the final week of a big statewide campaign. But Obama and his outside forces are doing much more. "It's not that our buy isn't strong, it's very strong," a Clinton official said. "It's that their buy is gargantuan and amplified with two big independent buys."

Clinton and Obama will return to Ohio over the weekend for a final push, and their organizations will be doing the same. Clinton's plans activities in all 88 counties to rev up enthusiasm, while Obama organizers expect a big influx of out-of-state volunteers to help get out the vote on Tuesday.

In Virginia, Maryland and Wisconsin, Obama showed an ability to close strongly, and his campaign team hopes that he can overtake Clinton here the same way he did in those other states. Clinton's campaign still sees Ohio as their best opportunity to end Obama's winning streak. But the pressure will be on her to cut into Obama's delegate advantage, and that makes her challenge all the more difficult.

By Web Politics Editor  |  February 29, 2008; 12:55 PM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama , Dan Balz's Take , Hillary Rodham Clinton  
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