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For Clinton, Ohio, Texas emerge as must-wins

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and her advisers increasingly believe that, after a series of losses, she has been boxed into a must-win position in the Ohio and Texas primaries on March 4, and she has begun reassuring anxious donors and superdelegates that the nomination is not slipping away from her, aides said Monday.
Image: Clinton Campaign Rally In El Paso
Supporters hold up their signs at a rally for Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton at UTEP University February 12 in El Paso, Texas. Clinton is facing off with rival contender Sen. Barack Obama for wins in the Potomac Primaries of Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Rick Gershon / Getty Images
/ Source: The New York Times

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and her advisers increasingly believe that, after a series of losses, she has been boxed into a must-win position in the Ohio and Texas primaries on March 4, and she has begun reassuring anxious donors and superdelegates that the nomination is not slipping away from her, aides said Monday.

Mrs. Clinton held a buck-up-the-troops conference call on Monday with donors, superdelegates and other supporters; several of them said afterward that she sounded tired and a little down, but determined about Ohio and Texas. And these donors and superdelegates said that they were not especially soothed, saying they believed she could be on a losing streak that could jeopardize her competitiveness in Ohio and Texas.

“She has to win both Ohio and Texas comfortably, or she’s out,” said one Democratic superdelegate who has endorsed Mrs. Clinton, and who spoke on condition of anonymity to share a candid assessment. “The campaign is starting to come to terms with that.” Campaign advisers, also speaking privately in order to speak plainly, confirmed this view.

Several Clinton superdelegates, whose votes could help decide the nomination, also said Monday that they were wavering in the face of Mr. Obama’s momentum after victories in Washington, Nebraska, Louisiana and Maine last weekend. Some of them said that they, like the hundreds of uncommitted superdelegates still at stake, may ultimately “go with the flow,” in the words of one, and support the candidate who appears to show the most strength in the primaries to come.

Clinton advisers have said that superdelegates should support the candidate who they believe is best qualified to be president, while Obama advisers have argued that superdelegates should reflect the will of voters and the best interests of the party. Superdelegates are Democratic party leaders and elected officials, and their votes could decide the nomination if neither candidate wins enough delegates to clinch a victory after the nominating contests end.

Hope for Va. surprise
With primaries on Tuesday in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, Clinton advisers are pessimistic about the candidate’s chances, though some are holding out hope for a surprise performance in Virginia. And as polls show Mr. Obama gaining strength in Wisconsin and his native state of Hawaii, which vote on Feb. 19, advisers, donors and superdelegates said they were resigned to a possible Obama sweep of the rest of February’s contests.

Some donors also expressed concern about a widening money imbalance between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton: Mr. Obama’s fund-raisers say he is taking in roughly $1 million a day, while Mrs. Clinton’s fund-raisers say she is taking in about half of that, mostly online. Clinton aides say that the campaign was virtually broke as of the Feb. 5 primaries, but that finances have since stabilized.

Still, Mr. Obama’s financial edge allowed him to begin running television ads in Ohio and Texas on Monday, while the Clinton campaign plans to begin advertising on Tuesday. Mrs. Clinton advisers say that she will have ads running statewide in both Ohio and Texas, and that she will have ads in English and Spanish in Texas.

“I think that clearly things have not been going as great as they were with her victories on Super Tuesday, and we can’t wait to get to March 4,” said Alan Patricof, one of Mrs. Clinton’s national finance chairmen.

Mrs. Clinton will have “a major ad buy” through the next week in Wisconsin, a senior adviser said Monday, and spend a few days campaigning there. But this adviser and others said that the bulk of her time going forward will be devoted to campaigning in Ohio, Texas and a bit in Rhode Island; she plans to fly Tuesday to Texas, underscoring its importance even though Wisconsin votes next week.

While Mrs. Clinton’s advisers and allies emphasize that she has the time and the financial resources to regroup, they say she will have to take more significant steps to shore up her candidacy beyond the staff shakeup she engineered on Sunday, when she replaced her campaign manager and longtime aide, Patti Solis Doyle, with another longtime adviser, Maggie Williams.

Campaign advisers said they expect Ms. Williams to bring new energy to both the campaign team and to Mrs. Clinton, after a long year of campaigning, and to encourage Mrs. Clinton to show more spunk and determination on the campaign trail. They say they do not expect the candidate’s political message to change appreciably; she will increasingly focus on the concerns of working-class voters, a key demographic in Ohio, as well as Hispanics, a significant population in Texas.

As she seeks to erect a fire wall for her candidacy in Ohio and Texas, she will deploy her husband, former President Bill Clinton, to campaign in both states, particularly in Ohio, where her advisers believe his popularity will help her with working-class voters, labor union members and African-American voters.

At the same time, the Clinton team moved on Monday to shift the public spotlight off of Mrs. Clinton’s short-term challenges and focus instead on “the long run,” in the words of her senior strategist, Mark Penn. In a conference call with reporters, Mr. Penn, who is also Mrs. Clinton’s pollster, played down some polls that show strength for Mr. Obama and highlighted Mrs. Clinton’s abilities to beat the leading Republican candidate, Senator John McCain of Arizona.

“We believe that Hillary Clinton in the long run is better position to take on John McCain,” Mr. Penn told reporters. “She has consistently shown an electoral resiliency in difficult situations that have made her a winner. Senator Obama has in fact never had a serious Republican challenger.”

Yet some Clinton donors and superdelegates worry that the focus on Mr. McCain is premature, and that other strategic decisions by the campaign — such as counting on Michigan and Florida delegates to be seated at the Democratic convention in August even though their status is in limbo — show errant thinking that suggests the Clinton campaign does not have a short-term game plan to stem Mr. Obama’s momentum.

“They are looking way too much at Florida, Michigan and McCain, because all three won’t matter if she doesn’t blow Obama away in Texas and Ohio,” said another Democrat who is both a Clinton superdelegate and major donor, and who spoke on condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment of campaign strategy. “Obama has momentum that has to be stopped by March 4.”

Downplaying momentum
Clinton advisers took issue on Monday with the notion that Mr. Obama’s momentum was significant, noting that his victory in the Iowa caucuses did not translate into winning the New Hampshire primary five days later, nor did his South Carolina victory prevent Mrs. Clinton from winning the biggest states of Feb. 5.

“There is no evidence that voters are voting based on momentum — in fact, the evidence is to the contrary,” said Howard Wolfson, Mrs. Clinton’s communications director.

Hassan Nemazee, another national finance chairman for Mrs. Clinton, said he was also telling his network of allies not to get caught up in the headlines about Mr. Obama’s success this month.

“I’m telling donors and supporters, don’t be overly concerned about what goes on in the remainder of the month of February because these are not states teed up well for us,” said Hassan Nemazee, one of Mrs. Clinton’s national finance chairmen.

Asked if that message was sinking in, Mr. Nemazee pointed to the campaign’s announcement that Mrs. Clinton has raised $10 million online so far this month, and is on pace to raise more than $20 million in February.

“I predict for you we will have our best single fund-raising month in February, and that’s significant,” he said.