By Susan Milligan, Globe Staff
CLEVELAND -- The Democratic presidential campaigns, heading into critical contests in Ohio and Texas next month, are waging competing battles with a similar strategy: lower expectations for yourself, and raise them for your opponent.
Senator Barack Obama of Illinois won Wisconsin Tuesday by well more than expected, his campaign manager, David Plouffe, told reporters in a conference call today. That's great momentum -- but don't expect him to win the big prizes of Texas and Ohio, he said.
And Senator Hillary Clinton of New York is well-positioned to compete in Texas, which has many Latino voters sympathetic to Clinton, and in Ohio, where working-class voters have a high opinion of her, said Mark Penn, Clinton's chief strategist. But don't expect a blow-out, the campaign said.
"We don't expect any particular margin,'' said Harold Ickes, Clinton's senior adviser.
The Obama campaign, flush from its ninth and tenth straight victories Tuesday in Wisconsin and Hawaii, insists that Clinton needs lopsided wins in almost every state and territory left to vote, or she will not be able to secure a majority of pledged delegates. By the Obama campaign's count, the Illinois senator is 159 pledged delegates ahead of Clinton.
"She'd have to win pretty much all the states, including states where we're favored'' to dominate, Plouffe said. "This isn't simply a question of Senator Clinton needing to win the raw vote'' in Texas and Ohio, he said. "In order for them to really erode the pledged delegate lead, they probably have to win both those states by more than 20 [percentage] points.''
The Clinton campaign refused to say how big its wins needed to be, noting that neither candidate is likely to secure the 2,025 delegates needed to sew up the nomination by the end of the primary process, and will have to turn to superdelegates to reach the magic number.
"We expect to do well'' in Texas and Ohio. But "there is no question that they are critically, critically important,'' said Howard Wolfson, Clinton's communications director.
Democratic party rules generally allocate pledged delegates proportionately by congressional district, meaning that the actual number of delegates awarded to each candidate might be very close, even if one wins by five or six percentage points statewide. Plouffe estimated that Clinton would need to win 70 percent of the remaining pledged delegates to pull ahead.
The Clinton campaign does not seem confident it can take back the lead among pledged delegates, but hopes to get the nomination with superdelegates, which Ickes today called "automatic delegates.''
"We expect to narrow that gap substantially by the end of this process,'' Ickes said. "At the end of this process, neither candidate will have the delegates to cinch the nomination'' and will need superdelegate support, he added.