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Managing March 4 Expectations

Even as the campaigns of Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) battled it out over the latest campaign ad from the New York senator, the two sides also found time to set expectations heading into the Ohio-Texas Two-Step next week.

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe -- on an expectations-setting conference call -- predicted close contests in Ohio and Texas and argued that was very bad news indeed for Clinton.

"The Clinton campaign has said they need to win both Texas and Ohio by over ten points," Plouffe said. "They are going to fail on that measure and fail miserably."

Plouffe went on to make the now-familiar argument that it is nearly impossible for Clinton to erase Obama's pledged delegate lead before the end of the primary season. Plouffe said that by the campaign's calculations, Obama holds a lead of 162 pledged delegates, a margin that means that for Clinton to catch up she would need to win nearly three-quarters of the remaining pledged delegates.

"If this pledged delegate lead doesn't drop below 100 they simply don't have any avenue to the nomination," Plouffe concluded. (On a later conference call Friday, Illinois Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) was asked whether Clinton should drop from the race if she doesn't win Ohio and Texas next Tuesday; he dodged, saying such a decision was entirely up to her.)

Soon after the Plouffe conference call concluded, the Clinton campaign -- in the form of chief strategist Mark Penn and communications director Howard Wolfson -- were at the expectations game. (Close readers of The Fix may have gleaned by now the sheer number of conference calls conducted in this campaign on a daily basis; it is truly staggering.)

Wolfson was quick to set the bar VERY high for Obama next Tuesday. "If he is unable to win all four states it shows Democrats are engaged in what some in the media have called buyers' remorse," Wolfson insisted.

A memo sent to reporters by the Clinton campaign just before the call began echoed Wolfson's talking point. "The Obama campaign and its allies are outspending us two to one in paid media and have sent more staff into the March 4 states," read the memo. "In fact, when all is totaled, Senator Obama and his allies have outspent Senator Clinton by a margin of $18.4 million to $9.2 million on advertising in the four states that are voting next Tuesday."

Wolfson added that should Obama not sweep Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island and Vermont it should be read as a sign of "concern and dissatisfaction with Senator Obama's campaign."

As usual in politics, the truth is found somewhere between the spin.

While Plouffe is entirely right in his statements about the current delegate math, he is also a savvy enough political strategist to know that momentum and perception often matter as much (or more) than delegate math. Wins for Clinton in Ohio and Texas -- and by wins we mean popular vote victories -- would almost certainly keep this campaign going through Pennsylvania's primary on April 22. Math matters but momentum matters more.

Similarly, Wolfson is aware that painting anything short of Obama sweep next Tuesday as a defeat for the Illinois Senator is a VERY hard case to make. The burden of proof is on Clinton these days, not Obama. After all, it is Obama who has won 11 straight contests. It's hard to imagine that if Obama emerges from Tuesday's votes with wins in 13 out of the last 15 contests he will be portrayed as a loser by any credible observer.

Clinton has much at stake in Ohio and Texas, no matter how much expectation-lowering her campaign does over the next five days. Both states are, on paper, demographically in line with the groups Clinton has showed strength among -- Latinos, rural voters, lower middle class whites -- in the nominating process to date. And, no higher authority than former President Bill Clinton has said that if his wife wins Ohio and Texas he believes she will win the nomination and that if she doesn't, she won't.

At this late stage of the nomination fight, spin starts to become irrelevant. Either the candidates go out and get the job done or they don't. Whatever the campaigns say between now and Tuesday, the truth is this: Clinton must win in Ohio and probably Texas to stay viable in the race while Obama needs to split those two big states to take another big step toward closing out the nomination.

By Chris Cillizza  |  February 29, 2008; 4:35 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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