By Scott Helman, Globe Staff
Senator Barack Obama notched another victory over Senator Hillary Clinton in today's Mississippi Democratic primary, further demonstrating his appeal in the Deep South but adding fuel to Clinton's argument that his success in the nomination race is built tenuously on states where Democrats face dim prospects in November.
Obama, in one of the most racially polarized contests yet, was handily defeating Clinton 55 percent to 43 percent with about a third of precincts reporting tonight, picking up most of the 33 delegates at stake and expanding his overall delegate lead of more than 100. Clinton and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, campaigned vigorously in Mississippi, but Obama's win was widely expected.
Tellingly, neither candidate was anywhere near Mississippi while voters went to the polls. Both were campaigning in Pennsylvania, whose April 22 primary is the next big prize in their protracted and increasingly bitter battle and where recent polls have shown Clinton leading by between four to 19 percentage points.
Obama's win in Mississippi, together with his 24-percentage-point victory in Wyoming's caucuses on Saturday, are his latest triumphs in smaller states that, if history is any guide, will be irrelevant to Democrats in the general election: Mississippi has not voted for a Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976; Lyndon Johnson, in 1964, was the last Democrat to win Wyoming.
Clinton, who has won Democratic strongholds with lots of electoral votes, such as California, New Jersey, and New York, has tried to seize on Obama's victories in so-called red states to argue that he is winning in places that do not really matter, while she is winning ones that do.
"If you cannot win Ohio, you cannot win the presidency," Clinton said last week after she won Ohio, one of the most important swing states in any general election.
But analysts say neither candidate has a clear-cut case in trying to argue that primary results will correlate to what happens in November.
And Obama, to date, has won more traditionally Democratic states than Clinton. Among the states that voted for Democrats in the last two presidential elections -- Senator John F. Kerry in 2004 and then-Vice President Al Gore in 2000 -- he has twice as many victories as Clinton. Obama has also won twice as many traditionally Republican states, which he argues demonstrates his bipartisan appeal and competitiveness in November. Clinton and Obama have roughly split swing states.
One of Obama's top surrogates, Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, yesterday dismissed Clinton's argument that Obama's track record so far somehow portends problems for him if he faces Senator John McCain in the general election.
"This is really a fallacy. Those Clinton voters will vote for Obama in November," McCaskill told MSNBC. "The key is the independent voter, and that's where Barack Obama has his strength."
Obama, himself, asked earlier this month whether he had to win bigger states such as Texas to prove his electability, told reporters: "I would think at this point, the question is no longer, is it a big enough state, or is it a state with too many black people, or is it a state that's in the Midwest or is a caucus state. We've won states and we've won delegates."
There are only eight states left to vote in the nomination race, starting with Pennsylvania next month and ending with Montana and South Dakota in June. Most of them lean Republican. Only two -- Pennsylvania and Oregon -- voted Democratic in 2000 and 2004; the remaining six all voted for President Bush both years.
Unlike most primary nights, neither Clinton nor Obama had speeches tonight after the Mississippi results.
"What we've tried to do is steadily make sure that in each state we are making the case about the need for change in this country," Obama told CNN tonight. "Obviously the people in Mississippi responded."
"It's just another win in our column," he added. "And we are getting more delegates."
Clinton issued a brief statement from campaign manager Maggie Williams: "We congratulate Senator Obama for his win in Mississippi and thank our supporters and volunteers there for their support, hard work, and long hours. Now we look forward to campaigning in Pennsylvania and around the country as this campaign continues."
Exit polls from Mississippi indicated a striking racial divide. Black voters, who made up roughly half of the electorate, were largely responsible for Obama's victory -- he beat Clinton among blacks by a nine-to-one margin. But Clinton won nearly three in four white voters. Obama fared especially poorly among older whites and did better among younger whites, according to the exit polls, conducted for the Associated Press and television networks.
Voters said Clinton had run the more negative campaign in a race that has grown increasingly heated. Sixty percent said Clinton had attacked her rival unfairly, while 39 percent of voters felt Obama had gone after Clinton unfairly.
Still, more than 60 percent of Democratic voters said they would be content with either Clinton or Obama as the eventual nominee, and a majority said Clinton or Obama should pick the other as a running mate.