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Why a Clinton Losing Streak
Won't Mean it's Over


Hillary Clinton hopes the race is not to the swift. (AP.)

By Dan Balz
Unless she manages to win one of the Potomac primaries Tuesday, Hillary Clinton will wake up Wednesday having lost eight consecutive contests to Barack Obama in just five days. That kind of losing streak has often been fatal in nominating campaigns and may prove so again -- but not necessarily in this odd and unpredictable year.

Momentum has been an illusory concept in the Democratic race. Obama had it for four days after Iowa and then saw Clinton rise up and stop him in New Hampshire. By the time the campaign moved toward South Carolina, it was Obama who badly needed a victory.

Obama seemed to have momentum again on the eve of Super Tuesday. He won South Carolina decisively, after which he was embraced by much of the Kennedy dynasty. Crowds packed his events from Boise to Boston.

Had Obama won California a week ago, as some polls were predicting, he would have unmistakably been on a roll. Instead, he and Clinton split the nearly 1,700 delegates at stake on Super Tuesday and she avoided what could have been a devastating blow by capturing four of the five biggest states voting that day.

The calendar is the culprit for some of the confusion about who has the upper hand in this year's Democratic contest. The calendar is more compressed than ever, but more importantly, the states Democrats have looked to in the past to settle close races are not playing their traditional roles.

Iowa and New Hampshire played their accustomed roles -- not in deciding the nomination, as their critics feared, but in determining the finalists, although there was never much doubt about a Clinton-Obama final. But other states -- particularly big states -- have done little to resolve the race.

The New York and Illinois primaries often have been decisive contests. Bill Clinton effectively sealed his nomination in 1992 by first winning Illinois and several weeks later taking New York. This year, neither counted for much because of the home-state advantage for Obama in Illinois and Clinton in New York.

Michigan and Florida are two other states that Democrats have relied on to help determine their strongest nominee. Jimmy Carter's victory in Florida in 1976 built on his successes in Iowa and New Hampshire and put him on the path to winning the nomination. Michigan's union and blue-collar tradition has long been seen as a pivotal test for any Democratic candidate.

But this year, thanks to the calendar controversies, Michigan and Florida have been turned into contests that do not count -- at least not yet.

In Florida, 1.7 million Democrats voted, and half supported Clinton. But there was no campaign there because the candidates had agreed to abide by the decision of the Democratic National Committee, which had sanctioned Florida for moving up its primary. In Michigan, almost 600,000 people voted in the Democratic primary. Clinton was the only major candidate on the ballot; Obama and most others took their names off after the DNC decertified the state.

California and New Jersey are two other big states that often have been decisive in determining the nomination, and in the old days they were the two cleanup contests at the end of the calendar.

California was where Bobby Kennedy won in 1968, a victory that likely would have given him the nomination over Eugene McCarthy had he not been assassinated leaving his victory celebration. New Jersey was a crucial state for Walter Mondale in 1984 in his long battle against Gary Hart, who was winning California the same day.

Clinton won both California and New Jersey on Super Tuesday, but because they were but two of 22 states voting last week, their influence was diminished.

Next week, Obama will look to Wisconsin and Hawaii to add to his momentum. Hawaii should be a gimme because he spent part of his childhood there. Wisconsin has a tradition that is favorable to both insurgents and eventual winners. Hart beat Mondale there in 1984. Clinton narrowly defeated Jerry Brown in 1992. Kerry dispatched John Edwards in 2004 in their Badger State showdown.

Which brings us to Ohio and Texas on March 4 and Pennsylvania on April 22 -- all big states that have been touchstones in past contests.

The Lone Star State has not been critical since 1988, when Michael Dukakis narrowly won there and in Florida on a southern-dominated Super Tuesday that established him as the Democratic front-runner.

Most recent Democratic nominees have won both Ohio and Pennsylvania, but in the two competitive nomination battles of the 1980s -- Carter-Kennedy and Mondale-Hart -- the states have split. Ted Kennedy lost Ohio but defeated Carter in Pennsylvania in 1980 and kept his campaign alive to the convention. Mondale defeated Hart in Pennsylvania but narrowly lost in Ohio, extending their contest to California and New Jersey.

The new calendar this year has generated a new dynamic, which is now playing to Obama's benefit. His success on Super Tuesday was due in large part to his ability to win smaller states, often by big margins. His strength in red states has added to his argument that he could expand the electoral map in the fall in a way Clinton cannot.

States like Idaho and Kansas -- both won by Obama -- have not been players in past campaigns, but by claiming more states won than Clinton and by forging a lead among pledged delegates, he has shrewdly taken advantage of a calendar and has put Clinton on the defensive.

Winning states is obviously important. In 1980, Kennedy won four big states -- California, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania -- but Carter won 37 overall to Kennedy's 12 and held onto the nomination.

Obama is on his way to winning a majority of states against Clinton, but can he afford to lose Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania and still claim the nomination? By the pledged delegate numbers, it's possible but risky, given the number of uncommitted superdelegates who would be reluctant to move en masse to him in the face of three big losses. For Clinton, the calculation is obvious: They are all must-wins. Until those states are heard from, this will remain a volatile race.

By Washington Post editors  |  February 12, 2008; 1:50 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take , Primaries , The Democrats  
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