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Politics

Obama, Clinton square off in Wisconsin

MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - Democrats in Wisconsin and Hawaii make their choices on Tuesday in a heated presidential battle, with Hillary Clinton hoping to snap Barack Obama’s winning streak ahead of big contests in March.

Public opinion polls show Obama and Clinton in a tight race in Wisconsin, where Obama aims to extend his string of eight straight victories in Democratic nominating contests. Obama, a Hawaii native, is a heavy favorite in that state.

Up for grabs in the two states are a combined 94 delegates to the August convention that selects the Democratic presidential nominee in November’s election. Obama has a slight lead in pledged delegates won in state presidential contests.

Obama, a U.S. senator from neighboring Illinois, said on NBC’s “Today” show he was confident about his chances in Wisconsin.

“We feel good about the campaigning we’ve done there. But you never take it for granted. Remember New Hampshire,” Obama said, referring to his surprise loss to Clinton just five days after a breakthrough win in Iowa.

Turnout was heavy in some locations despite sub-freezing temperatures in Wisconsin, where voting ends at 8 p.m. CST (9 p.m. EST). Democrats open their caucuses for presidential preference voting in Hawaii at 7 p.m. HST (midnight EST).

Republicans also hold a primary in Wisconsin, with front-runner John McCain looking to continue his march to the nomination. McCain, an Arizona senator, has a huge and essentially insurmountable lead in delegates over his last remaining major rival, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

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“With you help today we will take another step,” McCain told a rally of about 150 supporters in Milwaukee.

In the Democratic race, Obama and Clinton already have turned their attention to March 4 contests in two of the biggest states, Ohio and Texas, which have a rich lode of 334 convention delegates at stake.

DEMOCRATS LOOK AHEAD

Clinton is the early favorite in both, although one public opinion poll in Texas on Monday showed the race in a statistical dead heat. Clinton campaigned in Ohio and Obama in Texas on Tuesday.

In San Antonio, Obama touted his plan to target predatory lenders and give tax credits to homeowners struggling to cover their mortgage. He criticized Clinton’s proposal to freeze the monthly rate on existing adjustable rate mortgages.

“It will reward people who made this problem worse but it will also reward people who are wealthy and don’t need it,” Obama said.

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Clinton spokesman Jay Carson said Obama was out of touch with average Americans and sounding like President George W. Bush. “Senator Clinton’s plan only helps subprime borrowers, a population that is disproportionately low-income,” he said.

The pair’s hard-fought nominating duel featured a sharp exchange on Monday over Obama’s uncredited use of speech lines from a friend and ally, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. Obama said he should have credited Patrick but dismissed the controversy as no big deal.

But Clinton said the incident cast doubt on the authenticity of Obama’s rhetoric -- one of the Illinois senator’s biggest selling points.

Slideshow ( 23 images )

“The real issue here is, if your entire candidacy is about words, they should be your own words,” Clinton, a New York senator and former first lady, said in a satellite interview with a Hawaii television station.

Public opinion polls offered mixed results ahead of the Wisconsin vote, with most showing a slight lead for Obama. Both camps tried to lower expectations.

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe noted Wisconsin has a large population of the blue-collar workers and rural voters who have been a big part of Clinton’s constituency, and few of the black voters who have overwhelmingly supported Obama.

The primary also is an open contest allowing participation by Republicans and independents, not the small, closed caucus states where Obama has performed well.

“By their own definition, this should be very friendly terrain for them,” Plouffe told reporters. “We think this is going to be a real competitive contest.”

Republicans in Washington state also hold a primary, which is the second half of their two-tiered nominating contest. The state’s Republicans held a caucus on February 9, won narrowly by McCain.

The voting ends for Washington Republicans at 8 p.m. PST (11 p.m. EST).

(Additional reporting by Caren Bohan and Jason Szep; 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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