Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton coasted to a large victory in West Virginia on Tuesday, handing Barack Obama one of his worst defeats of the campaign yet scarcely slowing his march toward the Democratic presidential nomination.
"The White House is won in the swing states. And I am winning the swing states," Clinton told cheering supporters at a victory rally late Tuesday.
Clinton, who was winning the state by more than a 2-to-1 ratio, coupled praise with Obama with a pledge to persevere in a campaign in which she has become the decided underdog.
“I am more determined than ever to carry on this campaign, until everyone has had a chance to make their voices heard,” she said.
As in previous contests, she made another plea for donations to overcome the large fund-raising advantage that Obama has.
Despite the size of her victory, it did not threaten Obama's lead in the race for the nomination. He conceded defeat in advance in the state, looking ahead to the Oregon primary later in the month and the campaign against John McCain.
"This is our chance to build a new majority of Democrats and independents and Republicans who know that four more years of George Bush just won't do," he said at a campaign appearance in Missouri, which looms as a battleground state in the fall.
"This is our moment to turn the page on the divisions and distractions that pass for politics in Washington," added the man seeking to become the fist black presidential nominee of a major party.
Electorate was 95 percent white
Interviews with West Virginians leaving their polling places suggested Clinton's victory could be as overwhelming as any she has gained to date, delivered by an electorate that was 95 percent white and was composed of the kinds of voters who favored her in past primaries. Nearly a quarter were 60 or older, and a similar number had no education beyond high school. More than half were in families with incomes of $50,000 or less.
The exit polls showed race, education, Obama's former pastor and a plan for a summertime suspension of federal gas taxes all gave Clinton a huge advantage in the state's presidential primary.
Three-fourths of whites without college degrees were backing Clinton. They've favored the former first lady all year and were crucial Tuesday because they were nearly two-thirds of the state's voters.
Most also said Obama shares the views of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who has been criticized for incendiary speeches, and favored the gas tax plan that Clinton supports and Obama opposes. Big majorities of both groups backed Clinton. Clinton's aides contended that her strength with blue-collar voters — already demonstrated in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana — made her the more electable candidate in the fall.
Even before the polls closed, spokesman Mo Elleithee said the primary showed voters "don't want to be told that this thing is over. The people of West Virginia rejected the rush to call this thing over. They sent a very clear message tonight that Hillary Clinton is the best person to take on John McCain in the fall."
Obama retains big delegate lead
Clinton won at least 16 of the 28 delegates at stake in West Virginia and Obama won at least seven, with five more to be allocated.
That left Obama with 1,882.5 delegates, to 1,713 for Clinton, out of 2,026 needed to clinch the nomination at the party convention in Denver this summer. The Democratic win on Tuesday in a Mississippi special election increased by one the number of delegates needed to win the nomination.
NBC's national delegate count currently stands at 1,426 for Clinton and 1,591 for Obama. NBC’s estimated superdelegate count stands at 276 for Clinton and 283 for Obama.
[There are differences in how news organizations count delegates, how they award superdelegates, how they account for states that have held caucuses but have not yet chosen their delegates, and how they project the apportionment of delegates within Congressional districts where the vote was close. The Associated Press and NBC news conduct separate delegate counts.]
Clinton's aides contended that her strength with blue-collar voters — already demonstrated in primaries in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana — makes her the more electable candidate in the fall.
In her speech Tuesday night, Clinton said, "I deeply admire Senator Obama," but she added, "our case is stronger." She said she had won roughly 17 million votes in the primaries and caucuses to date.
Obama also narrowly won Nebraska's nonbinding primary. He had won the state's caucuses earlier in the year and with them, a majority of its delegates.
Clinton arranged a meeting with superdelegates for Wednesday. About 250 of them remain publicly uncommitted.
Clinton used her victory speech to again argue that she still had a shot at the nomination. She said the delegates from Michigan and Florida — states that were penalized by the Democratic Party because they held their primaries too early — should be seated at the national convention.
“I believe we should honor the votes cast by 2.3 million people in those states," Clinton said.
"In light of our overwhelming victory here in West Virginia, I want to send a message to all those who are making up their minds," she said.
"I am in this race because I believe I am the strongest candidate."
The delegate tally aside, the former first lady struggled to overcome an emerging Democratic consensus that Obama effectively wrapped up the nomination last week with a victory in the North Carolina primary and a narrow loss in Indiana.
He picked up four superdelegates during the day, including Roy Romer, former Democratic Party chairman.
"This race, I believe, is over," Romer told reporters on a conference call. He said only Clinton can decide when to withdraw, but he added: "There is a time we need to end it and direct ourselves to the general election. I think that time is now."
Meeting on Senate floor
Clinton and Obama briefly shook hands on the Senate floor Tuesday after interrupting their campaigns for a few hours to vote on energy-related bills.
In the days since, close to 30 superdelegates have swung behind Obama, evidence that party officials are beginning to coalesce around the first-term Illinois senator who is seeking to become the first black to win a major party presidential nomination. Three of his new supporters formerly backed Clinton, who surrendered her lead in superdelegates late last week for the first time since the campaign began.
In his appearance in Cape Girardeau, Mo., Obama sketched the case against McCain. "For two decades, he has supported policies that have shifted the burden onto working people. And his only answer to the problems created by George Bush's policies is to give them another four years to fail," he said.
Tucker Bounds, a spokesman for McCain, said in response that Obama's rhetoric showed "more of the same negative, partisan politics that have paralyzed Washington for too long. Barack Obama talks about change and bipartisanship, but he has never showed the leadership needed to bridge party divides."
Clinton had spent parts of several days campaigning in West Virginia in search of victory.
She refrained from criticizing Obama directly, but had a cautionary word nonetheless for party leaders who seemed eager to pivot to the fall campaign. "I keep telling people, no Democrat has won the White House since 1916 without winning West Virginia," she said at Tudor's Biscuit World in the state's capital city.
Looking toward the fall
Obama was in the state on Monday, but it was clear he was looking beyond the primary.
He said several days ago he expected Clinton to win by significant margins in West Virginia and then in Kentucky, which holds its primary next week. And on Monday, he tried to set the bar of expectations exceedingly low for himself, suggesting that anything above 20 percent would constitute a good showing in West Virginia.
He devoted more time to Oregon, which also holds a primary next week, and announced plans to campaign in several other states that loom as battlegrounds in the fall against McCain.
Among them are Florida and Michigan, two states that held early primaries in defiance of national Democratic Party rules. The two combined have 44 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House, and Obama has not yet campaigned in either.
Obama also broke from his usual practice by wearing a flag pin on his suit jacket. He told several thousand people at the Charleston Civic Center that patriotism means more than saluting flags and holding parades.