As Clinton fades, Obama begins to ready for race against McCain
Charles Babington and Sara Kugler
BEND, Ore. — Barack Obama began sketching the outlines of his expected presidential contest against Republican John McCain, saying the fall election will be more about specific plans and priorities than about questions of political ideology or patriotism.
Barely mentioning Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama said he was open to campaigning with McCain in “town hall” events. McCain’s advisers have already said he would be open to holding such joint forums or unmoderated debates in which both candidates would take questions from voters.
Obama warned that he won’t stay away from controversial issues and he attacked McCain’s proposal for a temporary halt in the federal gasoline tax as a “pander.”
The turn toward campaigning against McCain and not Clinton came as Obama, who would be the nation’s first black president, surpassed Clinton last Saturday in the all-important count of superdelegates.
Superdelegates are the nearly 800 party and elected officials who will attend the Democratic national convention this August in Denver and are free to support whomever they choose, regardless of the primary results.
They are key because the Democratic race has been so close that neither Obama nor Clinton can win the nomination without them.
Clinton, who is vying to be the country’s first woman president, started the year with a lead of 169-63 among superdelegates. Now Obama has endorsements from 276 superdelegates, according to the latest tally by The Associated Press. Clinton has 271.5.
In the overall race for the nomination, Obama has 1,864.5 delegates and Clinton has 1,697, according to the latest AP tally; 2,025 are needed to secure the Democratic nomination at the party’s national convention.
In a sign of his new focus on McCain, Obama is beginning to campaign in states without upcoming primaries. He said he will soon visit Michigan and Florida, two battleground states whose Democratic primaries were essentially nullified by party disputes, and Tuesday was slated to visit Missouri for a campaign event focusing on economic issues.
During a campaign stop in Bend, Ore., which holds its primary May 20, Obama made sure to say that he had not won the nomination yet, but nonetheless entertained several questions about the likely outlines of a contest against McCain.
“Rather than an abstract set of questions about, ‘Is he too liberal, is he too conservative, how do voters handle an African American, et cetera,’ I think this is going to be a very concrete contest around very specific plans for how we improve the lives of Americans and our vision for the future,” he said. “I think it is going to have to do with who has a plan to provide relief to people when it comes to their gas prices, who has a real plan to make sure that everybody has health insurance, who’s got a real plan to deal with college affordability.”
Obama said he realizes he must continue introducing himself to millions of Americans who do not know him well, and acknowledged that some question his patriotism because he no longer wears a lapel flag pin.
He said the test of patriotism “is whether we are true to the ideals and values upon which this country was founded,” and willing to fight for them “even when it’s politically inconvenient.”
Obama said McCain has received “a free pass” while he and Clinton have battled for months.
McCain, he said, “has a straight-talker image, but it’s not clear that lately he’s been following through on that image. I mean, this gas tax holiday was a pander.”
The McCain campaign noted that Obama, as an Illinois state senator, once voted for a temporary gas tax suspension, which Obama now calls a mistake.
Although party leaders feel it is only a matter of time before the former first lady must concede defeat, Clinton forged ahead last Saturday, holding a fundraiser for her cash-strapped campaign in New York.
“Let’s keep going, stay with me, this is a great adventure and we’re going to make history,” she told the crowd of several hundred people, most of them women.
She barely mentioned Obama in a speech that focused on issues such as equal pay for women, only noting their differences on health care and the gas tax.
She said it would be “exciting to have the first mother in the White House.”
Polls conducted prior to Tuesday’s West Virginia primary showed Clinton leading Obama by as much as 40 percentage points in the state, where her strongest supporters, white working class voters, make up a substantial portion of the Democratic electorate.
But Clinton has struggled to raise money in recent weeks, and was set back further last Tuesday when she squeaked by with a narrow win in Indiana while Obama won handily in North Carolina.
Clinton has repeatedly vowed to remain in the race until the last of the six remaining nominating contests is waged in early June.
Her husband, Bill Clinton, campaigned last Saturday in Montana, and said the contest should continue until the state’s June 3 primary, which is the last in the nation. But the former president avoided any direct criticisms of Obama, choosing instead to focus on his wife’s differences with the Bush administration.
Democratic party insiders increasingly want to see the historic but contentious nominating contest come to a conclusion. Many of the superdelegates who endorsed Obama in the past week said it is time for the party to unite behind him.
In all, Obama added five superdelegates last Friday and Saturday. Obama added superdelegates from Utah, Ohio and Arizona, as well as two from the Virgin Islands who had previously backed Clinton. Clinton added one in Massachusetts, but lost the two in the Virgin Islands.
“It is perceived that he is the leader,” said Don Fowler, a superdelegate from South Carolina who supports Clinton. “The trickle is going to become an avalanche.”
Sara Kugler reported from New York. Associated Press writers Stephen Ohlemacher in Washington and Philip Elliott in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.