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Clinton And Obama: What Could Happen AFTER Tuesday's Vote

CNBC.com

This week, more than any other of the 2008 Democratic campaign, has acquired an air of decisiveness. That’s because four primary contests on Tuesday could extinguish Hillary Clinton’s hope for overtaking Barack Obama. Staggering after 11 consecutive losses, she trails badly in Vermont, runs even or slightly behind in Texas, and leads in Ohio and Rhode Island.

Yet the hinge could still swing either way. If Mrs. Clinton carries the March 4 behemoths of Ohio and Texas--despite her opponent’s momentum and financial advantage--Mr. Obama may rue this week as the end of his coronation and the beginning of a wrenching springtime struggle.

Clinton loyalists aren’t brimming with optimism. Her once-formidable leads in Texas and Ohio have vanished, leaving her dependent on robust turnout among Hispanics in the former and white women in the latter.

One wild card both campaigns are weighing: that sympathetic supporters will vote in unusually large numbers to save her candidacy from extinction. “She has a shot” at carrying both, says her husband’s one-time strategist James Carville.

But if she does, Mr. Carville adds, “This thing is going on.” There are three reasons that could happen.

The first is financial. The $35-million that Mrs. Clinton raised in February--even if dwarfed by her opponent’s total, which some Obama aides peg at $60-million--suggest she’ll have means to continue, especially if she starts winning.

The second concerns delegates. Obama campaign chief David Plouffe paints a daunting picture of his candidate’s edge in “pledged delegates” selected by voters, which ranges from 134 to 159 depending on who’s counting. To erase it, Mr. Plouffe notes, Mrs. Clinton must win three-fourths of pledged delegates selected after March 4.

What he doesn’t say is this: even if Mr. Obama wins three-fourths, he won’t have enough pledged delegates to reach the 2,025 needed for nomination. Unless Mrs. Clinton quits, either candidate will need votes from so-called “superdelegates” with automatic convention seats, such as members of Congress.

Which leads to the third reason: the argument Mrs. Clinton could make to superdelegates. It is that that she wins the biggest battle, while Mr. Obama rolls up delegates in states like Idaho, Utah and Nebraska sure to irrelevant to general election strategy.

Wins in both big contests on Tuesday would bolster evidence including her earlier victories in California, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, as well as her polling lead in the April 22 Pennsylvania contest.

Prevailing patterns suggest a Clinton sweep on Tuesday remains unlikely, however. Losing either Ohio or Texas would cripple her argument about dominating big states.

From super-delegates and other party leaders, Mrs. Clinton would face public and private pressure to leave the race. Those who know her expect she’ll make a hard-headed calculation on her own.

“No one has to sit her down and tell her what the reality is,” says Jonathan Prince, a Clinton administration veteran who advised John Edwards this year.

Questions? Comments? Write to politicalcapital@cnbc.com.