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How Clinton Can Win It

Following Tuesday's primary in Pennsylvania, it's clear that the Democratic presidential contest between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama is not likely to conclude until early June.

Given that reality, the overarching question facing party activists and elected officials (read: superdelegates) over the next five weeks is whether or not Clinton has a legitimate and plausible path to the nomination.

The answer to that question is clearly: Yes.

To be clear: The most likely scenario is that Obama's lead in pledged delegates and the popular vote continues as the two Democrats split up the remaining nine contests.

But a path does exist for Clinton. Here's what it looks like:

* Money, Money, Money: First and foremost, Clinton needs to find a way to avoid being outspent by Obama at anywhere near the volume with which he bombarded her in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Those two states played to Clinton's demographic strengths and insulated her from Obama's vast spending. She can't rely on that built-in advantage in the states to come -- particularly in North Carolina and Indiana.

At the end of March, Clinton trailed Obama by more than $30 million in cash on hand. She's not likely to close such a gap in the next few weeks and is almost certain to get out spent again. But she has to come within shouting distance to stay competitive. The news that Clinton has raised $10 million on the Internet since her win in Pennsylvania is a good sign. But she'll need more. A lot more.

* Indiana in Hand: There's no scenario by which Clinton can make a strong case to superdelegates if she can't win in the Hoosier State on May 6. The best argument Clinton has at her disposal right now is that Obama cannot win over blue collar, white voters who have been hit hard by the economic slowdown and are looking for a politician to look out for them. Indiana is not as heavily populated with those sorts of voters as Ohio or Pennsylvania, but there is still a significant bloc of them in the Hoosier State. If Obama can win -- even by a single point -- he takes a huge amount of air out of Clinton's balloon.

At the moment, Indiana is probably a toss-up between the two candidates, with Obama running strong in and around Indianapolis as well as in big college towns like Bloomington (Indiana University) and South Bend (Notre Dame). Clinton's strength is in the rural areas of the state (not surprisingly) and in the fact that Sen. Evan Bayh, whose name is political gold in the state, is her most prominent backer there.

* The Element of Surprise: The one thing that Clinton hasn't done since New Hampshire is defy conventional wisdom. Her come-from-behind victory in the Granite State was amplified because NO ONE -- not even many within her own campaign -- saw it coming. Obama has had any number of those "oh wow" moments -- from his convincing win in Iowa to his massive margins in South Carolina and Virginia to his upset of Clinton in Missouri. For Clinton to build a sense of momentum, she needs to do more than win her home games (Puerto Rico, Kentucky, West Virginia) from here on out. She needs a road win too. The most likely? Probably Montana or South Dakota -- small, rural, white states. It's not clear whether a narrow Clinton loss in a state like North Carolina, which favors Obama demographically, would count as a sufficient surprise.

* Florida (Finally): At the core of Clinton's path to the nomination is finding a way to pass Obama in the popular vote. Despite her 200,000 vote margin in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, she still trails Obama by roughly a half million votes nationwide. She could cut that margin by nearly 60 percent by figuring out a way to include Florida in the popular vote count. (Clinton took 857,208 votes to 569,041 for Obama). Clinton's campaign is already starting to make the case for Florida to count; deputy communications director Phil Singer sent an e-mail to reporters Wednesday morning contending that when Florida and Michigan are counted "more people have voted for Hillary than any other candidate."

The Obama campaign will fight tooth and nail to keep the Florida popular vote from counting, arguing that while all the candidates' names were on the ballot, none of them actively campaigned in the state. Obama dismissed the idea of the raw vote trumping delegates won on the campaign trail Wednesday. "I guess there have been a number of different formulations that the Clinton campaign has been trying to arrive at to suggest that somehow they're not behind," Obama said, according to the Associated Press's Nedra Pickler. "I'll leave that up to you guys. If you want to count them for some abstract measure, you're free to do so."

Stumble Into Doubt: In the six weeks between the Ohio and Texas primaries on March 4 and Pennsylvania's primary on Tuesday, the political world was introduced to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, "bitter" and Tuzla. What do the next five weeks hold? Clinton has to hope that Obama slips again in some sort of public way and that she runs the sort of flawless campaign that she did in the first six months of 2007. If that scenario came to pass, it would further sew the seed of doubt in the minds of undecided superdelegates about whether nominating Obama is too great a risk to take.

Hoping to minimize their candidate's exposure, the Obama campaign has been (smartly) reluctant to agree to any more televised debates, although Clinton's team spent yesterday pushing Obama to commit to another faceoff before the North Carolina and Indiana votes on May 6. We doubt Obama will acquiesce -- especially after what his campaign believes was rough and unfair treatment at last week's ABC-sponsored debate in Philadelphia.

Remember that Obama is still relatively new to national politics, a green-ness that could give Clinton loyalists hope. But also remember that Obama is one of the most naturally gifted politicians ever to grace said stage and doesn't tend to make many mistakes.

* Superdelegates Stay Put: There is much chatter in political circles that Obama has a cache of superdelegates already committed to him that his campaign will unveil in the next two weeks. Before The Fix was even up this morning, Obama had received the endorsement of Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry; later in the day a Nebraska superdelegate went for him. Clinton has to hope that the rumors of Obama's superdelegate stash are overstated; if Obama is able to roll out a few endorsements every day or two between now and June 3, it will create the impression that he is the de facto nominee. On a practical level, it would also narrow the number of unpledged superdelegates to the point where Clinton would need to run the table in order to overcome Obama in the overall delegate count.

* Policy First: The Clinton campaign spent much of 2007 making a process argument: She was the best known and best financed candidate in the field and, therefore, she would win. Well, voters don't vote on process. The Clinton campaign needs to get away from talking about vote margins, superdelegates and electability and instead focus on the economy and health care almost full time. Her victory speech in Philadelphia was a good start, as Clinton focused less of her time on why the race wasn't over and more of the address talking about solving peoples' problems.

Nearly six-in-ten Pennsylvania voters said the economy was the most pressing issue facing the country, and they went for Clinton by 18 points. She must build on that edge in Indiana, North Carolina and beyond by focusing full time on the economic slowdown and how she alone is equipped to help Americans change their circumstances for the better.

By Chris Cillizza  |  April 24, 2008; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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