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Obama's Path

From where he stands, he can see his way to the nomination. But is he tough enough to get there?

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The morning after Super-Duper Tuesday, Barack Obama held a press conference in Chicago, where he was asked an obvious question: Isn't it a mite disingenuous for him to continue to cast himself as the underdog in his race against Hillary Clinton? "I'm never disingenuous," Obama deadpanned. "I think we are less of an underdog than we were two weeks ago. Two weeks ago, we were a big underdog. Now we are a slight underdog." Obama added, with a smile, "I think we are turning out to be a scrappy little team."

Never let it be said that Obama is a man without a sense of humor. Put aside his performance the day before, when he won a majority of the states and a majority of the delegates (or so his side maintains) up for grabs. Put aside the fact that in January his campaign raked in an astonishing $32 million and that another $6 million arrived in the following 24 hours. Consider instead that on the very same day, Clinton was forced to acknowledge that she'd injected $5 million of her own money into her operation, with possibly more self-funding to come. Consider that some of her senior strategists were offering to work without pay. Consider that her team was asking, pleading for more debates-and gamely, if lamely, trying to label Obama as the "Establishment candidate."

Now, honestly, which of these campaigns sounds as if it's riding high? And which sounds like it's reeling?

Unwelcome as it may be in terms of spin, the reality is that Obama stands as the front-runner in the race. The question is whether he can translate that position into the nomination. And here the answer is far less clear. Though the path that could transport Obama to victory isn't difficult to discern, it's a road pockmarked with potholes. Also one that appears increasingly likely to carry him and his party into terra incognita—maybe even past the end of the primaries and all the way to the Democratic convention.

Beyond his own estimable political skills, the greatest advantage that Obama has going forward is money. The resources required by the states that lie ahead may seem like a drop in the bucket compared with those demanded by Super-Duper Tuesday. But we're still not talking chump change. To run effective air and ground operations in Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania, says Jonathan Prince, a top adviser to John Edwards, "a serious campaign probably needs to spend around $5 million a week." And that's just three—albeit the most delegate-rich three—of some two dozen contests yet to come.

Making a nut of virtually any size should pose few problems for Obama, whose team is reportedly on track to raise another $30 million in February. From the start, his campaign has assembled a small-donor machine that, as David Axelrod put it to me, "lets us build ever-expanding concentric circles of support." But no such mechanism exists on the Clinton side, which rested its vaunted fund-raising apparatus on the backs of big contributors, most of whom are tapped out. While the campaign is working feverishly to get its online buckraking pistons pumping—and, indeed, in one day last week, they generated $4 million—it finds itself scrambling to play catch-up. Might Bill Clinton have to spend some of the $20 million he's reportedly owed from Ron Burkle on radio ads in Cleveland or Fort Worth? The mind reels, but, hey, who knows?

Obama's second major advantage is the calendar. Between Super-Duper Tuesday and March 4—when Ohio, Texas, Vermont, and Rhode Island vote—nine contests were set to take place: four caucuses (a format Obama has dominated), four primaries with a big percentage of black voters (ditto), plus the primary in Wisconsin, in which independents can vote (double ditto). But Clinton's people conceded this week that it was possible that their candidate would win not one of them. And if that or something like it occurs, sheer momentum might propel Obama to a sweep on March 4.

This is Obama's dream scenario, but it may also be a fantasy. From Iowa onward, Obama and Clinton have each assembled a formidable electoral coalition. Hers: downscale Democrats, especially women; senior citizens; Hispanics. His: upscale Democrats, especially men; independents; blacks; young voters. The trouble for Obama is that the demographics of both Ohio and Texas aren't particularly favorable to him. In 2004, just 10 percent of Democratic-primary voters in Ohio earned more than $100,000 a year-and fully 25 percent of those who voted in Texas were Latino. Moreover, HRC will have the bulk of the Establishment support (Ohio governor Ted Strickland is behind her, for example) in both states.

Yet no matter who prevails in Texas or Ohio, there's a reasonable chance that the outcome will settle nothing. Why? Because, as we all were instructed ad nauseam by the TV bloviators on Tuesday, the Democratic process is governed by the principle of proportionality—which means that, unless one side really clobbers the other in a given state, each of them winds up with a roughly equal number of delegates. The intent of proportionality is to protect genuine underdogs. But in a fight between heavyweights, the effect, as Clinton communication czar Howard Wolfson puts it, is "more to avoid picking a nominee rather than picking one."


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