AP’s Fournier Sizes up Obama/Clinton Battle

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Hillary Rodham Clinton slowed Barack Obama’s momentum Tuesday night with a winning formula that has Republicans smiling ? and some Democratic leaders hoping to end the race soon.

Though she still faces a virtually insurmountable disadvantage in the delegate chase, the New York senator managed to keep her campaign afloat with a “kitchen sink” attack strategy designed to raise doubts about Obama. It worked, but to what end?

A charmed politician who has faced few hurdles in is career, the Illinois senator had to answer questions about his ability to handle a foreign policy crisis (who do you want answering the White House phone at 3 a.m.?); his friendship with a donor facing fraud charges (Tony Rezko helped Obama with a land deal); his service in the Senate (failing to hold hearings as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee); and his credibility on trade (an adviser reportedly told Canadians that his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement was posturing).

On Tuesday, the former first lady won Ohio, Texas and Rhode Island, losing only Vermont. Enough to stay in the race, she said, and go “all the way.”

That’s not what many party leaders wanted to hear.

“Despite Obama’s impressive victories in February, Clinton’s comeback is based on sowing political seeds of doubt,” said Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist and one of nearly 800 party leaders known as superdelegates for their ability to determine the nomination. “In order to clinch the nomination, he must anticipate the worst attacks ever.”

Consider that a shot across the bow to the Clinton campaign because Brazile ? like many other superdelegates ? worries that Clinton’s only hope for victory is tearing down Obama and dividing the party. Party chairman Howard Dean recently told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that he was concerned about the possible impact of a nominating campaign that stretched through the end of the primaries in early June.

Some superdelegates are bracing themselves to intervene on Obama’s behalf if necessary.

“If these attacks are contrasts based on policy differences, there is no need to stop the race or halt the debate,” Brazile said. “But, if this is more division, more diversion from the issues and more of the same politics of personal destruction, chairman Dean and other should be on standby.”

A senior Obama adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Obama’s team will respond to Tuesday’s results by going negative on Clinton ? raising questions about her tax records and the source of donations to the Clinton presidential library, among skeletons in the Clintons’ past.

The winner of that fight would be John McCain, who sealed the GOP nomination Tuesday night and would love nothing more than fratricide among the Democrats. He could use the time to raise money, energize conservative voters and sharpen his general election message.

Obama began Tuesday with an 11-race winning streak and a lead in the delegate chase in The Associated Press count ? 1,386-1,276. His margin was larger ? 1,187-1,035 ? among pledged delegates chosen in primaries and caucuses.

Clinton has little chance of closing the gap because Democrats allocate most of their delegates proportionally, meaning the loser of a close contest earns nearly as many delegates as the winner. Even as she declared victory in Ohio, Clinton knew that Tuesday’s results were unlikely to draw her much closer to Obama.

It doesn’t get any better for Clinton after Tuesday. Just for kicks, pencil the New York senator in for landslide victories in Wyoming, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky plus narrow victories in Guam, Indiana, North Carolina, Montana and South Dakota ? scenarios that give her a hefty benefit of the doubt and then some. And what happens?

She still trails Obama.

Her only hope is that a solid majority of the nearly 800 superdelegates support her over Obama. Party rules allow them to act independently, but it’s almost unfathomable that these political animals would not ratify the results from primaries and caucuses.

These folks know better than to defy the wishes over voters. No doubt they’ll notice that six in 10 Democratic voters told pollsters Tuesday that so-called superdelegates should vote based on results of the primaries and caucuses rather than for the candidate they think has the best chance to win in November.

Even among Clinton’s voters, about half said the superdelegates should follow the results of the primaries and caucuses.

You’ll hear Clinton’s campaign give all sorts of reason why the race isn’t over, all smacking of desperation. Their best argument is the fact that Clinton won New York, California, Connecticut and a few other big states.

Unfortunately for her, the road to the nomination doesn’t necessarily go through big states. As Clinton strategist Mark Penn wrote in mid-February: “… It is voters and delegates who matter.”

For Democrats like Brazile, it’s the party that matters ? and they’re worried that it’s being hurt. One candidate trails in delegates and the other has a glass jaw.

“Like that old saying, it ain’t over until the fat lady howls,” Brazile said. “Seems like no one knows if she can still sing in this clutter.”

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EDITORS: Ron Fournier has covered politics for The Associated Press for nearly 20 years. On Deadline is an occasional column.

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