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Democrats drive for delegates

Candidates switch strategies to amass the needed number

Email|Print| Text size + By Alan Wirzbicki
Globe Correspondent / February 1, 2008

WASHINGTON - After watching his wife lose the South Carolina primary by a 2-to-1 ratio to Senator Barack Obama last weekend, former President Bill Clinton took the campaign to an improbable location: Illinois, where Obama enjoys home-state advantage and is leading Hillary Clinton by double digits in polls.

The Clinton campaign doesn't actually hope to win Illinois, where a trove of 153 delegates is at stake. But Bill Clinton's trip there on Wednesday demonstrated how the two remaining Democratic candidates are quickly revising their campaign strategies to focus on racking up delegates, not wins.

In the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, the candidates sought the momentum that comes with victory. Now, political analysts said, the Democrats are focused on winning enough votes in the right places to maximize their chances of accumulating delegates - even if it means fighting for votes in states they are likely to lose or maximizing their winning percentage in places where they are already strong.

"The reality is we really are in a delegate-by-delegate battle," said Guy Cec il, Clinton's national political and field director. "In the end, states do not nominate the candidate. Delegates do."

Winning the Democratic nomination requires 2,025 delegates. Almost half of the total delegates will be selected in 22 states on Tuesday, including California, New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts. In the Republican race, 41 percent of the party's 2,380 delegates will be picked in 21 caucuses or primaries Tuesday.

On the Republican side, most big primaries are winner-take-all contests, with no points awarded to the runner-up. But under national Democratic Party rules, candidates can earn delegates two ways - by winning at least 15 percent of the vote statewide or at least 15 percent in any of the 224 congressional districts that vote Tuesday.

By stumping on Obama's home turf, the Clinton campaign hopes to limit its losses in Illinois and reap as many delegates as possible. Likewise, the Obama campaign is running ads in New York, where Clinton has a comfortable lead in most polls, hoping to grab a share of that state's 232 delegates - especially in New York City, where Obama is expected to perform well.

"They are looking at these opportunities and seeing how they can maximize their delegate totals," said Tad Devine, who ran delegate strategy for Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis in 1988 and is not aligned with either candidate this election.

The Democratic system, with its emphasis on proportional representation within congressional districts, dates to 1988, when the Rev. Jesse Jackson complained that he had won substantial numbers of votes in some districts but received no delegates because they were awarded on a winner-take-all basis.

Delegate math has also altered campaign strategies in the Republican race. The winner-take-all GOP contests, including in New York and New Jersey, may benefit the current leader in the polls, Senator John McCain of Arizona. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has been focusing on California, one of the few Republican primaries to elect district-level delegates, and he has all but conceded New York and New Jersey to McCain.

To be sure, the Democratic campaigns prefer popular-vote victories and the intangible momentum boost that comes with them. But delegate totals will play an increasingly prominent role in campaign strategies for Clinton and Obama if the race remains competitive past Super Tuesday, as many observers predict. After Tuesday, Washington, Nebraska, and Louisiana vote on Feb. 9, followed by Maine on Feb. 10 and the so-called Potomac Primary of Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia on Feb. 12.

Already, the emphasis on delegates has produced some oddities, such as Clinton's stop in southern Illinois and Obama's decision to air ads in Alaska and North Dakota, states that have only 13 delegates each but where the Obama campaign believes it can secure most of them with a relatively small investment. They are also among the six states that will conduct caucuses instead of primaries, a format the Obama campaign believes is advantageous because his supporters tend to be more organized and energized.

For the four Republicans remaining in the race, the party's delegate rules have forced the campaigns to abandon states an opponent seems certain to win. For instance, McCain has few incentives to campaign in Utah, because Romney is widely expected to win and there are no delegates awarded to the second-place finisher in the state's GOP primary. Likewise, McCain's home state of Arizona is a winner-take-all state, making it pointless for Romney to campaign there.

Although California, Massachusetts, and a few other Republican primaries do allow second-place candidates to earn delegates, the rules are generally more restrictive than in the Democratic races. In California, for instance, the winners of each congressional district receive three convention delegates even if they don't win statewide; but unlike in the Democratic contest, there are no delegates awarded to the second-place finisher within a district no matter how close the results.

McCain currently has 95 Republican delegates, compared with 67 for Romney. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has won 26 delegates, and US Representative Ron Paul of Texas has six.

On the Democratic side, Obama has won 63 delegates, compared with 48 for Clinton. Former North Carolina senator John Edwards won 26 before leaving the race.

But the totals change when the party's superdelegates are included. These senior party officials, who serve as delegates by virtue of their status as Democratic members of Congress or state party leaders, can vote for any candidate they choose, and they account for about 20 percent of all Democratic delegates. So far, Clinton leads among superdelegates, but hundreds have not announced a preference.

The prospect of a hunt for delegates has caused the campaigns to dust off party rulebooks that have largely been treated as formalities for the past two decades, and to conduct elaborate analyses to find districts where they have a chance to win enough of the popular vote to peel a delegate away from their opponent.

In Democratic races, most congressional districts select between four and six delegates. The exact number will be determined by Democratic performance in the 2004 presidential election and recent state elections, with more delegates awarded to heavily Democratic areas.

In a race with two strong contenders such as Obama and Clinton, analysts said, the candidates are likely to split the delegates evenly unless one wins by a significant margin.

Devine said that because "you have to win a district by an enormous margin" to gain the extra delegate in a six- or four-delegate district, candidates may spend less time and money there unless they think there is a chance for a blowout win.

Congressional districts with an odd number of delegates are a different story. In those districts, winning by just one vote translates into an extra delegate. In Massachusetts, three congressional districts - the Fourth, Fifth, and Tenth - have an odd number of delegates.

In general, Devine said, the Democratic campaigns are eyeing "threshold" figures in each district to determine where to direct resources. If a candidate is polling at 56 percent in a six-delegate district, it might make sense to buy more advertising there in hopes of pushing support up a few points to claim the fourth delegate. For instance, the Clinton campaign planned rallies yesterday in heavily Latino sections of Los Angeles, where the candidate is expected to cruise to victories over Obama, in the hopes of running up the score there and raising the delegate count.

Because of the complexities of the Democratic rules, however, winning the popular vote in a Democratic contest will not even guarantee that a candidate receives the most delegates. In Nevada, for instance, Clinton won the state's caucuses last month by six percentage points, but ended up with one fewer delegate than Obama.

Anthony J. Corrado Jr., a professor of government at Colby College, said that with limited campaign funds, both candidates are studying delegate maps as they decide where to devote resources in coming weeks, hoping to get the most delegates for each dollar of campaign spending.

"In a place like North Dakota or Alaska, which hasn't seen much of the campaign, sometimes just doing three or four days of advertising can lead to a win," he said, adding: "These little bites add up."

Because the Democratic delegate rules make it hard for either candidate to get a significant lead, analysts said Super Tuesday may end in a virtual draw. That would put later states that resisted the temptation to switch their primaries to Feb. 5 in the position of kingmakers - and call into question the wisdom of states, like Massachusetts, that moved their primary to Super Tuesday hoping to gain more weight in the nominating process.

"The Potomac Primary in Washington, Virginia, and Maryland, and the Wisconsin primary the week after, may prove to be very important in this race," Corrado said.

"The one thing that has always been consistent in the Democratic primary is that states that move their calendars around hoping to have greater influence have typically found that what they sought is not what they got."

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