Sen. Barack Obama is expected to declare tonight that he has crossed a pivotal threshold toward becoming the Democratic presidential nominee, though his rival may trounce him by double digits in Kentucky and disputes his math.
Despite the expected Kentucky loss, Mr. Obama will have earned the majority of pledged delegates that can be won through contests, a milestone that many superdelegates have said they will use to determine their support for the senator from Illinois or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.
“A clear majority of elected delegates will send an unmistakable message: The people have spoken, and they are ready for change,” Obama campaign manager David Plouffe told supporters yesterday.
Mr. Obama hedged and told reporters that he won’t be claiming “victory,” but the campaign said he will be breaking a psychological barrier that makes him the inevitable nominee. He will make the announcement from Iowa, the scene of his first win this year and a state that his camp considers a battleground in the fall election.
The Clinton camp said no such barrier will be broken.
“Not so fast,” Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson cautioned in a memo yesterday, calling the Obama milestone a “slap in the face to the millions of voters in the remaining primary states and to Sen. Clinton“s 17 million supporters.”
“There is no scenario under the rules of the Democratic National Committee by which Sen. Obama will be able to claim the nomination tomorrow night,” Mr. Wolfson wrote. “Premature victory laps and false declarations of victory are unwarranted. Declaring mission accomplished does not make it so.”
She said the nominee must reach a number that includes delegates from the disputed Florida and Michigan contests and told an Oregon TV station yesterday: “You can declare yourself anything, but if you don’t have the votes, it doesn’t matter.”
Her campaign is angling to increase her popular vote total in hopes of somehow changing the mathematics.
“I’m going to make my case and I’m going to make it until we have a nominee, but we’re not going to have one today and we’re not going to have one tomorrow and we’re not going to have one the next day,” she said yesterday. “If Kentucky turns out tomorrow, I will be closer to that nomination because of you.”
The two campaigns view the nomination process differently, as illustrated by their Web sites.
The Obama site, www.BarackObama.com, includes an intricate delegate breakdown from each contest that shows him ahead by delegates and states won.
Mrs. Clinton’s site instead notes the popular vote — 16.69 million for her and 16.65 million for her rival — based on the campaign’s calculation including Florida and Michigan and discounting Mr. Obama’s caucus victories.
Factoring in Florida and the caucus turnouts in Iowa, Nevada, Maine and Washington, Mr. Obama beats Mrs. Clinton in the popular vote 17.01 million to 16.93 million. His name was not on the ballot in Michigan.
His popular vote lead is even wider — 16.4 million to 15.7 million for her — under Democratic National Committee rules that scrap the results from Florida and Michigan because those states held contests earlier than allowed. The DNC will hold a hearing May 31 to determine how to deal with the rogue states, but even under that scenario Mrs. Clinton is unlikely to win because Mr. Obama now leads her among superdelegates.
All but about 180 superdelegates — party activists and elected officials who will vote at the nominating convention this summer — have declared their intentions. Many of the remaining superdelegates have said they will back the pledged delegate winner or will wait until voting ends June 3.
The Obama campaign in recent weeks has turned its focus away from Mrs. Clinton and toward the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Mr. Obama has directly attacked Mr. McCain on the campaign trail in recent days with barely a mention of Mrs. Clinton.
Yesterday, both men criticized each other’s stance on Iran. Mr. McCain has pledged not to enter direct talks with Tehran, while Mr. Obama has not ruled out that option.
Mrs. Clinton, meanwhile, has focused almost exclusively on Kentucky in the last week since routing Mr. Obama by 41 points in West Virginia. She is favored to win Kentucky by a similar margin and will hold a rally in Louisville after polls close tonight.
“My opponent said the other day he wasn”t coming back so I”ve got the whole state to myself. What a treat,” she said.
After today’s votes are counted, only three contests remain: Puerto Rico on June 1 and South Dakota and Montana on June 3.
After the Obama rally in Iowa, the senator heads to the swing state of Florida for a three-day campaign tour.
Mr. Obama won over several superdelegates yesterday, including Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, whose state overwhelmingly backed Mrs. Clinton. He also earned an endorsement from businessman Warren Buffett, the nation’s wealthiest person.
•KENTUCKY PRIMARY (60 delegates at stake)
•Suffolk University (May 17-18)
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton 51 percent
Sen. Barack Obama25 percent
•American Research Group (May 14-15)
Mrs. Clinton65 percent
Mr. Obama29 percent
OREGON PRIMARY (65 delegates at stake)
•Suffolk University (May 17-18)
Mr. Obama45 percent
Mrs. Clinton41 percent
•American Research Group (May 14-16)
Mr. Obama50 percent
Mrs. Clinton45 percent
Source: USA Election Polls
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