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Clinton makes a last stand in Ohio and Texas
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For Hillary Clinton, once viewed as the almost certain Democratic presidential nominee, it has come to this: Win in Ohio and Texas in three weeks, and again the next month in Pennsylvania, or go home.
The growing strength of rival Barack Obama, who decisively captured three more contests on Tuesday to extend his winning streak to eight, leaves Clinton few options in a grueling fight for convention delegates who select the nominee in the November election.
Clinton has made March 4 contests in Ohio and Texas, with a combined 334 delegates at stake, her last firewall in a battle that has tipped toward Obama. Pennsylvania would be the next big battleground on April 22, with 158 delegates at stake.
"Ohio and Texas are Clinton's last stand," said Democratic consultant Dane Strother, who is unaffiliated with either campaign.
"She needs Pennsylvania too. If she doesn't get those three, she can't get the nomination, the delegates aren't there," he said. "If you do the math, a split isn't good enough for her."
Obama's eight consecutive wins, strong fundraising and huge margins of victory have given him the upper hand just one week after a deadlocked Super Tuesday result put the two combatants at almost even strength in the Democratic struggle.
The Illinois senator has doubled Clinton's vote total in some contests and made inroads into the coalition of lower-income, women, Hispanic and senior voters who had fueled her campaign.
Most significantly, he has moved to a clear lead in pledged delegates who are bound to support him at the August nominating convention. A count by MSNBC puts Obama at 1,078 and Clinton at 969, with 2,025 needed to win.
Clinton, meanwhile, shows signs of a candidate who sees the prize slipping away. She pumped $5 million of her own money into the campaign to keep pace with Obama, replaced her top two campaign aides and turned her focus to a future round of contests she hopes are favorable to her.
But Clinton, a New York senator, has stopped Obama's momentum before -- beating him in New Hampshire just five days after his breakthrough win in Iowa -- and her aides say momentum is not a factor in this year's race.
She now has three weeks to refocus the race in Ohio and Texas and turn public attention to her preferred topics -- Obama's perceived lack of experience and issues like health care and the economy.
"She needs the breathing room," said Democratic consultant Erik Smith, an aide to Richard Gephardt's presidential campaign in 2004 who is unaffiliated this year. "Both campaigns are betting the longer this race goes, the better it will be for them. One of them will be wrong."
Clinton plans three days of campaigning this week in Texas and Ohio before turning to the next contest on Tuesday in Wisconsin, a state with a history of backing progressive candidates. Also voting that day is Obama's native Hawaii, where he is heavily favored.
In Ohio, Clinton hopes to profit from a high population of blue-collar workers and rural voters who have been a key part of her coalition. In Texas, more than one-quarter of Democratic voters are likely to be Hispanic, another key bloc for Clinton.
Obama has made steady gains in both groups in the most recent contests, however. His campaign aides say Clinton needs blowout wins in both states, and others, to overcome his growing lead in pledged delegates.
Because Democrats award their delegates on a proportional basis equal to the vote statewide and in congressional districts, even the loser in a state can win delegates. The only way to gain a significant edge is to win with more than 60 percent of the vote -- as Obama has done frequently.
"We believe it's next to impossible for Senator Clinton to close that pledged delegate count," said David Plouffe, campaign manager for Obama. "The only way she could do it is winning most of the rest of the contests by 25 to 30 points."
But Clinton still leads among the 796 superdelegates -- party insiders and elected officials -- who are free to support either candidate and can switch their backing whenever they like.
If she stays close, she can extend the race to the convention and hope Obama makes a crucial mistake that turns the tide.
"One strategy for her is just keep showing up and be who you are," Smith said. "That would be a gamble and a hope that he will show he's not ready."
Strother said Obama had created a superb field organization that made a difference in smaller and caucus states, and crafted a narrative about his campaign and his message of change that created excitement and grass-roots enthusiasm. Clinton has nothing to match, he said.
"Look at the stage management, every time you cut to Obama he has 16,000 kids, literally, screaming his name," Strother said. "You cut to her and she has some old governor with a blue backdrop behind her. It's so tomorrow and yesterday, it's breathtaking."
(Editing by David Wiessler)
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)
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