Obama steams toward Democratic nomination

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen Barack Obama addresses a campaign rally at the Linn County Fair and Expo Center in Albany, Oregon. (Getty Images/AFP)


Barack Obama has almost tied Hillary Rodham Clinton in the crucial superdelegate count that she once dominated, with the slew of new support offering one of the clearest signs yet that her Democratic White House bid was nearly over.

After a grueling months-long duel marked by bouts of acrimony and bitterness, the Democratic race entered its final weeks, if not days, with electoral math the deciding factor. Clinton, unlikely to be able to erase Obama’s 1,859.5 to 1,698 lead in delegates, needs massive support from those superdelegates – party leaders free to vote as they chose – who have yet to declare their preference.

With Obama also unable to reach the 2,025 delegates needed to win the nomination based solely on elected delegates, that same group offered the key to his securing the party’s stamp. The support of nine superdelegates on Friday were the latest in a steady trickle since he crushed Clinton in North Carolina and narrowly lost Indiana on Tuesday. Clinton gained two superdelegates on Friday.

Obama’s quiet, and increasing, confidence that the nomination was his was evident in his campaigning Friday in Oregon, where he focused his criticism on Republican John McCain and largely ignored his Democratic rival.

“I’m gratified that we’ve got some superdelegates who are coming our way. And I think we’ve got a strong case to make that I will be a nominee that can pull the party together and take on John McCain,” Obama told reporters in Woodburn, Oregon.

The 46-year-old Illinois senator, sights set on making history as the US’s first black president, said the presumptive Republican nominee would continue failed Bush administration priorities. He pointedly criticized McCain’s economic, health and Iraq policies, but steered clear of criticising Clinton, continuing a strategy of avoiding antagonising her or her supporters.

The push was calculated, and evidenced in his gentle efforts to nudge uncommitted superdelegates – about 250 out of the nearly 800 total – to his camp. Little more than four months ago, on the eve of the primary season, Clinton held a lead of 169-63.

Clinton, campaigning nearby in the Portland, Oregon, area, focused instead on the only real chance she had left to extend the life of her once-powerful candidacy: somehow derailing Obama. For that, she turned to the issues. At a roundtable at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, she criticised Obama’s health care plan for promising universal coverage to children but not adults.

“This is a big difference in this campaign. It’s not a difference of politics so much as commitment. ... How can anyone run to be the Democratic nominee and not have a universal health care plan?” she said.

Clinton picked up two new superdelegates, a congressman from Pennsylvania representing a district that voted overwhelmingly in favor of the former first lady in the April 22 Pennsylvania primary, and a congressman from Texas.

By campaigning in Oregon, Obama had his sights not only on a primary win, but also a perennial battleground state between the Democratic and Republican parties.

Speaking to a few dozen employees of a software company, Obama said McCain was “dead wrong when he said recently that he thinks our economy has made ‘great progress’ under George Bush. Is there anyone outside of Washington DC, who could truly believe that?”

The McCain campaign issued a lengthy rebuttal to Obama’s remarks. It noted that Obama once supported a gas tax suspension, which Obama now calls a mistake. It accused him of seeking unwise hikes in taxes and spending.

Obama did not mention Clinton until an employee asked about their respective health care plans. He acknowledged Clinton’s criticisms, but said the government should not penalise low-income adults who choose not to buy health insurance even with a significant government subsidy.

When asked if he might make Clinton his running mate, Obama said it would be presumptuous to speculate because “I have not won this nomination yet.”

“But I will say that she has shown herself to be an extraordinary candidate and an extraordinary public servant,” he said. “She is hardworking, she is tough, she is very smart. And so I think she would be on anybody’s list, short list, of vice presidential candidates.”

Obama predicted Clinton will win the Kentucky and West Virginia primaries “by significant margins,” although he will campaign in those states next week.

Clinton has repeatedly vowed to remain in the race until the last of the six remaining state contests is waged in June. But more than her campaign’s financial woes, it was the steady stream of delegates for Obama that hinted this race was nearing its end.

New Jersey Rep Donald Payne, who announced his decision on Friday, is one of at least 10 superdelegates who have switched allegiances from Clinton to Obama. None has publicly switched the other way.

Obama also picked up the endorsement of the influential American Federation of Government Employees union on Friday.

Doubts about Clinton’s candidacy also emerged one of her former presidential rivals.

In an interview with National Public Radio, John Edwards said Clinton has made a compelling case for her candidacy, but “I think it’s very hard for her now to make a compelling case for the math. I mean, I think that’s the reality of what she’s faced with. She knows that. ... It’s just very hard to see how the math works.”