Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday won Pennsylvania’s presidential primary, a victory that analysts said she had to have if she were to remain a credible candidate for the Democratic nomination.
Clinton, independent analysts and the campaign of Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois had predicted ahead of time that Clinton would win the state, where she enjoyed large leads in opinion polls until recently. But after closing the deficit in the last few weeks, Obama’s advisers said he would have the momentum unless Clinton won by a sizable margin.
With nearly all the precincts reporting, Clinton led by 55 percent to 45 percent, and she told a raucously cheering crowd in Philadelphia that she had done the job.
“We were up against a formidable opponent who outspent us 3-to-1. He broke every spending record in this state trying to knock us out of the race. Well, the people of Pennsylvania had other ideas today,” Clinton said as the crowd mocked Obama’s campaign slogan by chanting, “Yes, she can!”
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Obama immediately turned his attention to the Indiana primary, congratulating Clinton on her victory but otherwise taking little notice of the night’s results as he spoke to supporters in Evansville.
“I want to thank the hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians who stood with our campaign today,” he said.
Campaigns sift for clues
Lisa Caputo, a top aide to Clinton, noted Clinton’s earlier victories in Ohio, Texas, Michigan and Florida and said the win in Pennsylvania confirmed her appeal in the biggest battleground states that will be important in the general election.
“You can’t discount the fact that Senator Clinton has won those big states you have to win,” Caputo said in an interview with MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann. “It will put some questions in the minds of superdelegates ... how come Barack Obama just can’t seem to close the deal?”
But behind the scenes, senior Clinton advisers told NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell that the atmosphere was tense inside the campaign because it appeared Clinton might not get a significant boost of momentum.
The senior advisers said the campaign was in serious financial distress, alluding to the latest Democratic filings with the Federal Election Commission, which showed that Clinton was running in the red, while Obama had $42 million in cash on hand.
Clinton acknowledged the money gap in her victory speech, urging supporters to go to her Web site and contribute.
“Some people counted me out and said to drop out, but the American people don’t quit, and they deserve a president who doesn’t quit, either,” she said.
Aides to Clinton told NBC News that contributions from visitors to the Web site began spiking almost immediately. The campaign’s appeal raised $500,000 online in just the first hour after the polls closed, they said.
Meanwhile, Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, said his candidate was moving on to Indiana and would focus more of his attention on the general election.
“If Senator Clinton has a legitimate chance to win the nomination, then she has every reason to stay in. But if her only strategy is to try to tear down Senator Obama, then I think that will make a lot of Democrats uncomfortable,” Axelrod said.
“Ultimately, it’s important that we engage with Senator John McCain, because he’s out there making his case, and it’s important that we challenge that case,” Axelrod said.
Historic turnout for marquee battle
Turnout was described as historically heavy in the last of the big-state contests in the fiercely fought Democratic presidential campaign. State election officials said about half of the state’s 4 million registered Democrats showed up to vote, compared with less than 20 percent in recent presidential primaries, meaning long lines and long waits. There were few significant reports of voter fraud or other problems at polling places.
Still, the twists and turns of Pennsylvania’s election rules meant voters might have to wait as late as Thursday to find out who won most of the 158 delegates at stake.
Of those, 55 are awarded based on the statewide vote, but 103 are awarded based on the returns in individual congressional districts. Those results could be significantly delayed because many counties are split into multiple districts.
For Pennsylvania’s voters, Tuesday’s primary was a rare chance to cast ballots in a meaningful primary late in the campaign season. Democratic registration reached record proportions.
In Montgomery County, in the Philadelphia area, more than 300,000 new Democrats registered, many of them switching their allegiances from independent or Republican. For the first time, Democrats were the majority in the county; in the past, Republicans held a 2-to-1 advantage.
Tyreek Lemon of West Philadelphia said he enthusiastically cast his ballot for Obama.
“I voted for Barack Obama because I think he’s gonna change the world,” Lemon said.
Clinton supporters said that regardless of the outcome, she should stay in the race.
“I just think Hillary owes it to her people who vote for her,” Mike Montenero of said as he left his polling place in South Philadelphia.
Kathleen Gavin, 44, a psychotherapist in Allentown, said Clinton, the former first lady, earned her vote “10 years ago.”
“I don’t think [Obama] has the experience, the wisdom or the presence that Hillary has,” Gavin said.
NBC’s John Boxley, Steve Handelsman, Andrea Mitchell, Kenneth Strickland and Shawna Thomas; and Lynn Berry of NBC affiliate WCAU of Philadelphia contributed to this report.