WASHINGTON - Senator Barack Obama decisively swept the Democratic presidential primaries yesterday in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia to seize the momentum over Senator Hillary Clinton, who has lost eight straight primaries and caucuses since Super Tuesday.
With his three wins, Obama also took the lead in delegates, but both candidates were already looking to upcoming contests, especially in the crucial, delegate-rich states of Ohio and Texas next month.
Senator John McCain solidified his front-runner status in the Republican race, winning all three races as well. The result is likely to put added pressure on former governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who has acknowledged that he would need a "miracle" to win the nomination, to withdraw from the race.
Even as Obama was sweeping the three "Potomac primary" contests, Clinton was touting her own success in what has become a parallel matchup in this city on the Potomac River - the battle for superdelegates. Clinton was leading among the Democratic Party officials, members of Congress, and other elected officials who comprise the 796 superdelegates, who could determine the nomination if the two candidates remain close among delegates selected by voters.
Even with the superdelegates counted, Obama had 1,210 delegates as of late last night, com pared with 1,188 for Clinton, according to an Associated Press tally. Neither, however, was close to the 2,025 needed to win the nomination.
Before the votes were tallied, both Democratic candidates were planning for next week's contests in Hawaii, where Obama once lived and is expected to do well, and Wisconsin, where a new poll yesterday suggested that Obama had a 50 percent-to-39 percent lead. That will be followed by potentially decisive contests on March 4 in Rhode Island, Vermont, Ohio, and Texas.
"We are going to sweep across Texas in the next three weeks," Clinton said at a rally last night in El Paso. "I'm tested, I'm ready, let's make it happen!"
The Lone Star State has a 35.7 percent Hispanic population, nearly identical to the 35.9 percent in California, where Clinton won on Super Tuesday by capturing the Hispanic vote by a roughly 2-to-1 ratio.
She also hopes to do well in Ohio, appealing to working-class voters and touting the endorsement that she picked up yesterday from former US senator John Glenn. A SurveyUSA poll released yesterday suggested Clinton had a 56 percent-to-39 percent lead in the state, where she and Obama have agreed to debate on Feb. 26.
"Ohio is really going to count in determining who our Democratic nominee is going to be," Clinton told WCPO in Cincinnati during a round of television interviews yesterday.
Obama, meanwhile, appeared last night in Madison, Wis., where thousands of college students, who have helped fuel his campaign across the country, greeted him.
"Today, the change we seek swept through Chesapeake and over the Potomac," Obama said. "We won the state of Maryland. We won the Commonwealth of Virginia. And, though we won in Washington D.C., this movement won't stop until there is change in Washington, D.C., and tonight we are on our way."
"The cynics can no longer say our hope is false," he added.
Obama, like McCain, spent much of his speech talking about issues in the general election to come. Obama called McCain an "American hero," but said his priorities are "bound to the failed policies of the past."
McCain, in remarks last night to supporters in Virginia, took what might be perceived as a veiled swipe at Obama's message of inspiration and hope, saying: "To encourage a country with only rhetoric rather than sound and proven ideas that trust in the strength and courage of free people is not a promise of hope. It's a platitude."
Exit polls in the closely watched state of Virginia indicated that Obama fared strongly among many demographic groups, including ones that had been strengths for Clinton. He won nearly 2 to 1 among men and won among women by 58 percent to 42 percent. He won by a 9-to-1 ratio among African-Americans and across all income categories. Clinton and Obama split the support of white voters.
The Virginia contest exemplified the outpouring of enthusiasm by Democratic voters this campaign, although Republican turnout might have been dampened by the perception that the GOP race was already over. With 95 percent of precincts reporting, nearly 900,000 people had voted in the Democratic race, compared with about 472,000 in the Republican primary. Obama received more votes, about 600,000, than all of the Republican candidates combined.
Clinton, the New York senator, was the odds-on favorite to be the Democratic nominee for most of last year. But her initial strategy - that she was the inevitable choice - was undercut by her third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses. She then made a dramatic comeback by winning the New Hampshire primary. But since battling Obama to a stalemate on Super Tuesday, when she won California and New York to remain roughly even in the delegate count, she has overwhelmingly lost contests in six states, the District of Columbia, and the US Virgin Islands. Obama has now won 21 states, while Clinton as won 10.
The revised Clinton strategy is to look ahead to contests where she expects to do well and play down expectations elsewhere. On Sunday, she hired a new campaign manager, her longtime confidante Margaret Williams.
Yesterday, Clinton's deputy campaign manager, Mike Henry, announced his resignation. He said that the campaign needs quickly to build "a new leadership team."
Obama, who has benefited from overwhelming support from African-Americans and growing support from white voters, is trying to boost his standing with Hispanics. He has agreed to participate in a Feb. 21 debate in Austin, Texas, jointly sponsored by Univision, the nation's most popular Spanish-language network, and CNN. Obama yesterday began airing a Spanish-language radio ad in Texas in which an announcer says: "Barack Obama is talking to me. He's faced many of the same challenges that we've faced in my family."
A national poll released yesterday underscored the closeness of the race, suggesting that the two are in a statistical tie, Clinton with 45 percent and Obama with 44 percent.
On the Republican side, McCain widened his lead in the delegate count with at least 789 compared with Huckabee's 241. Mitt Romney, who suspended his campaign last week, had 288 delegates. McCain was awarded all 60 of Virginia's delegates under his party's winner-take-all system in the state. Huckabee has insisted, however, that he will stay in the race until someone reaches the 1,191 delegates needed for the nomination.
Since Romney's withdrawal, Huckabee has been seen as the last option for Republicans seeking an alternative to McCain, who has been criticized by prominent figures within the party for a perceived lack of loyalty to core conservative causes.
Exit polls in Virginia suggested that 46 percent of those who voted in the Republican primary were evangelicals. Members of that group voted for Huckabee by 58 percent to 30 percent. Huckabee won among conservatives by 51 percent to 35 percent. But McCain won among those who were concerned about the economy and the Iraq war.
Last weekend, Huckabee beat McCain in Louisiana and Kansas and finished a close second in Washington state - the latter two in caucuses dominated by conservative activists.