WASHINGTON — Memo to Hillary Rodham Clinton: Barack Obama is stealing your faithful.
The Illinois senator racked up sizable wins in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, besting the former first lady by a margin of 2-to-1. He also narrowly pulled ahead among delegates for the first time in the contest.
He did so by winning over many of the voters who form the core of Clinton's political base.
The Democratic rivals have waged a close battle for votes and delegates thus far, in part because they have appealed to different constituencies. Clinton has been strong among traditional Democratic base voters, such as Hispanics and working-class whites. Obama has run strongest among young people, independents, affluent voters and blacks.
Tuesday's results changed that dynamic, in a way that should trouble the Clinton team.
In Virginia and Maryland, Obama and Clinton were splitting whites almost evenly, according to an exit survey conducted for The Associated Press. Even white women were beginning to move toward Obama — Clinton won 60 percent of their votes, a much lower percentage than in contests past. Clinton has based her candidacy in large part on her appeal to white women.
In addition to his usual strong showing among young voters, Obama was also running about even among those over 65, a group Clinton usually dominates.
"This is the new American majority. This is what change looks like when it happens from the bottom up," Obama said to supporters at a campaign rally in Madison, Wis., Tuesday night.
Obama's resounding wins Tuesday followed a five-contest sweep last weekend in Washington state, Nebraska, Louisiana, Maine and the Virgin Islands.
Clinton has struggled to explain her string of losses to Obama, finding reasons to justify her poor showing in so many contests.
Caucus states, the former first lady says, are undemocratic and cater only to party activists. Southern states, like Louisiana, have "a very strong and very proud African-American electorate," naturally predisposed to favor a black candidate.
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And so-called "red" states like North Dakota, Idaho and Kansas — all of which Obama won on Super Tuesday — will never choose a Democrat in the general election anyway.
By this logic, only certain states really matter, such as New Hampshire and New Jersey, states that Clinton has won. Or Texas and Ohio, states she must capture to stay in the race.
The list of excuses is long, but the justifications are wearing thin. One by one, all the contests Clinton has suggested don't count are proving in size and scope that they do.
The Clinton campaign has tried gamely to recalibrate expectations — signaling loudly that February would not be a good month for the New York senator. Her strategists even are discounting the power of Obama's momentum and are instead framing the contest as a drawn-out hunt for delegates that might not conclude until the party's national convention in Denver this August.
They are also hoping Clinton will outperform Obama in debates later this month. Clinton had recently pushed for as many debates as possible, but Obama agreed to just two.
"Senator Obama is running from debates. If he really believes in openness, it's time to give voters what they deserve," Clinton strategist Mark Penn said.
But to do so is to ignore all the other measures of campaign success — all of which now favor Obama. His campaign has brought in more than $1 million per day from more than 650,000 contributors, allowing him to flood the primary states with television ads and staff. Clinton, meanwhile, is still climbing out of a financial hole that forced her to make a $5 million personal loan to the campaign.
Obama also continues to draw arena-sized crowds to his rallies, dwarfing Clinton's smaller but still enthusiastic gatherings.
In the face of such numbers, Clinton strategists have taken a risk — all but pinning her candidacy to the outcome of primaries in Texas and Ohio on March 4. The two states are large and delegate-rich, and their demographics — working-class white voters in Ohio, a large Hispanic population in Texas — have so far favored her candidacy.
Clinton was in Texas Tuesday while Obama campaigned in Wisconsin, whose primary is Feb. 19.
"The Clinton campaign can't have it be about states won or lost or delegates won," said Democratic strategist Jenny Backus. "It needs to be about electability in the fall, strength against John McCain and the key issues voters are facing."
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