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What Kind of 'Win' Does Clinton Need in Pa.?

Polls in Pennsylvania won't close for another six hours but Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton are exchanging dueling memos as each side seeks to set expectations for tonight.

"Pennsylvania is considered a state tailor-made for Hillary Clinton, and by rights she should win big," reads an Obama memo sent to reporters this afternoon.

Clinton must score a "blowout victory" in Pennsylvania to have any hope at the nomination, according to the memo: "The Clinton campaign has been trying to spin away their earlier confidence and move the goalposts for victory in Pennsylvania. But the bottom line is that if Senator Clinton is going to make meaningful inroads in this race for delegates, she will need a huge margin in Pennsylvania."

The New York Senator's campaign responded less than an hour later with a memo of its own entitled: "Watch What They Do Not What They Say."

The memo argues that Obama has employed a "go-for-broke" strategy in Pennsylvania that should translate into a win. "If he's already the frontrunner, if he's had six weeks of unlimited resources to get his message out, shouldn't he be the one expected to win tonight? If not, why not", the memo asks.

Consider the gauntlet thrown down.

The argument between the two campaigns over what constitutes a true "win" for Clinton in Pennsylvania has been fought minute-by-minute over the past six weeks. The Clinton campaign -- led by strategist Howard Wolfson -- has insisted that a win is a win, and that the New York senator's margin is immaterial in today's vote. Wolfson tends to give short shrift to the idea that a "big" win by Clinton is important for practical and symbolic reasons -- that it would help her gain ground in the delegate hunt and give her crucial momentum (and money) heading into North Carolina and Indiana on May 6.

"The stakes are high for both candidates," said Wolfson on a conference call yesterday. He added that superdelegates will be paying close attention to today's vote. "They will understand full well that if Senator Obama can't beat us outright with the enormous spending he has engaged in Pennsylvania then there's a problem."

Wolfson's mention of the spending disparity between the two candidates speaks to the hole in Obama's argument. While it is certainly true that Clinton began the Pennsylvania primary with a considerable lead and that the state's demographics clearly favor her, it is also true that Obama has drastically outspent Clinton on television in the state -- dumping better than $3 million on television over the past week.

In a traditional race -- House, Senate or gubernatorial -- in which two candidates are equally well known (as Clinton and Obama are), but one outspends the other so dramatically, the expectation would be that the better-funded candidate would win nearly every time. If the better funded candidate didn't win, questions would be raised about potential problems with messaging, spending, and the campaign itself.

None of that has happened to date for Obama, who outspent Clinton heavily in Texas and Ohio only to lose the primaries in both. (Obama won the Texas caucuses convincingly.) Will it if he winds up coming up short tonight by a significant margin?

Maybe.

For now the fight is on for control of the storyline.

"Tonight's outcome is unlikely to change the dynamic of this lengthy primary," reads the Obama memo. "Fully three quarters of the remaining delegates will be selected in states other than Pennsylvania."

The Clinton campaign, on the other hand, sees Pennsylvania as a critical test. "The vote in the bellwether state of Pennsylvania is another head to head measure of the two candidates and of the coalition they will put together to compete and win in November," reads the memo.

At issue is which narrative takes over if Clinton is able to win by somewhere in the neighborhood of 6-12 points. Will it be that Obama's inability to close Clinton out for a third time (New Hampshire and Ohio/Texas being the other two) speaks to a lingering problem with his candidacy? Or will it be that Pennsylvania was always going to be a Clinton state and the result leaves the underpinnings of the race for the Democratic nomination fundamentally unchanged?

The next 12 hours (or so) should give us a strong indication of which storyline wins out.

By Chris Cillizza  |  April 22, 2008; 2:19 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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