Six-week lull buys Clinton time in race

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After two months of almost weekly showdowns, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton take a six-week break before the next contest in Pennsylvania -- giving Clinton time to shift a tight Democratic presidential race in her favor.

Without a weekly horse race to consume the candidates and occupy the media, the focus now moves to broader arguments about who would make the best nominee against Republican John McCain in November’s election.

And the target audience shifts from voters in individual states to the group likely to settle the hotly contested race -- the nearly 800 Democratic superdelegates, those party insiders and officials who can back any candidate.

“The next six weeks is not about voters, it’s about spinning the press,” said Democratic consultant Dane Strother. “Clinton has to change the game, because she’s losing.”

The intense around-the-clock media environment fueled by cable television and the Internet will not take six weeks off, so a hungry news machine will be looking for new trends, hot controversies and changing story lines.

“This is going to be a test of both candidates’ ability over the next six weeks to stay in the game. It’s going to be a very different phase,” said Simon Rosenberg, head of the Democratic advocacy group NDN.

“There won’t be as much emphasis on the horse race and momentum, so there will be more examination of the two candidates,” he said. “This could be the knockout phase. At some point, one of these campaigns is going to start to fade.”

Only 10 Democratic contests remain, and Pennsylvania’s 158 pledged delegates are the biggest haul left. Obama leads Clinton in pledged delegates, but neither can get the 2,025 delegates needed to clinch the nomination without help from superdelegates.

Obama has built his lead -- now about 150 pledged delegates -- by steadily growing momentum in the state-by-state series of contests and rolling to some big wins, particularly in caucus states where his organization and grass-roots enthusiasm paid off.


With a break before the next contest, Clinton now has more time to make her case that Obama lacks the experience to be president, strategists said.

“The candidates will be doing campaign strategy on two levels. They are looking to score points locally and nationally,” said Democratic consultant Jenny Backus.

“They are going to run a very competitive and comprehensive campaign inside Pennsylvania, but they are also playing a game for the superdelegates,” she said. “You are going to see an attempt to win the narrative.”

While winning Pennsylvania is a persuasive first step in making their case, Clinton has a heavier burden there. She has a double-digit lead in public opinion polls in the state and a track record of success in states like Ohio with a similar base of blue-collar Democrats.

Clinton argues her wins in big, diverse states that are crucial to Democratic chances in November makes her a better nominee. That argument falls apart if Obama wins Pennsylvania.

“She needs Pennsylvania to flesh out her argument a little more,” Backus said.

Obama, meanwhile, is focused on building his lead in pledged delegates. His campaign plays down his hopes in Pennsylvania and says he will not focus solely on that state.

“Our campaign will not be defined by Pennsylvania,” Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said. “We view this as a group of 10 contests collectively. We want to try to maintain our pledged delegate lead.”

Both camps also will use the time to position themselves in the fight over redoing contests in Michigan and Florida, which were stripped of their delegates in a dispute with the national party.

Clinton won unsanctioned contests in both states, although Obama was not on the ballot in Michigan and no candidates campaigned in either state, and wants the delegates seated or a revote.

Neither Obama nor Clinton will be spending six consecutive weeks on a bus working the back roads and small towns of Pennsylvania. Both candidates expect to make trips to some of the later states such as Indiana and North Carolina.

“You can’t shake every hand in Pennsylvania. This is not a big Iowa,” Strother said.

(Editing by David Wiessler)

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