Wisconsin, a state hitherto best known for beer, cheese and the Green Bay Packers, may earn a place in history as having held the primary that finally tilted the race for the 2008 Democratic nomination to Barack Obama. In a decisive victory that showed just how dramatically Obama has cut into Hillary Clinton's once strong support among whites, women and blue-collar workers, the Illinois senator on Tuesday defeated his rival from New York 58 percent to 41 percent. Obama also won overwhelmingly in Hawaii.
John McCain, meanwhile, drew within a breath of the Republican nomination, defeating lone rival Mike Huckabee by 55 percent to 37 percent. Huckabee has proved unable to garner much support outside the South, traditional stronghold of his fellow evangelicals, but the former Arkansas governor has resisted bowing out of the race until McCain actually reaches the required 1,191 delegates needed for nomination.
Obama, in an impromptu speech while campaigning in Texas, told a roaring crowd, "Houston, I think we've achieved liftoff here." As he has increasingly done in recent weeks while racking up 10 straight primary victories—including Wisconsin and Hawaii—Obama all but claimed the nomination, referring to the "improbable journey" he began a year ago and saying his "bet has paid off." Obama also attuned his message to the general election contest against McCain and sounded his now-trademark call for "change." Because McCain endorses George W. Bush's economic policies and his war in Iraq, Obama said, the 71-year-old Arizona senator "represents the policies of yesterday and we want to be the party of tomorrow, and I'm looking forward to having that debate with John McCain."
Obama also continued to register a certain defensiveness against his rivals' attacks on his relative youth and inexperience. "A year ago … there were those who said, 'Why are you running so soon? … You can afford to wait'," he said. "I had to explain to them, I'm not running because of some long-held ambition … I'm running because of what Dr. King called 'the fierce urgency of now'." Whether the issue was Iraq, global warming or the economy, he said, "we cannot wait."
While major primaries remain in Texas and Ohio on March 4, Wisconsin was seen as a test case of whether Obama could make inroads into Clinton's strongest areas of electoral strength: workers and women. He also won in a mostly white state, decisively capturing the Caucasian male vote and belying the perception that he has been carried in previous primaries by the African-American electorate.
Despite having gone weeks now without a win, Clinton indicated she was not close to giving up. Redoubling her assault on Obama as a golden-tongued but hollow speechmaker, she told a crowd in Youngstown, Ohio, that the election was "about picking a president who relies not just on words but on work … We can't just have speeches. We've got to have solutions … We've got to get America back in the solutions business. While words matter, the best words in the world aren't enough unless you match them with action." Yet in a 20-minute speech, Clinton made no reference to her loss in Wisconsin, just as she had previously ignored Obama's other victories. Obama, apparently fed up with her perceived lack of graciousness as well as her negative campaigning, cut into her speech midway and took the news coverage with him.
McCain, appearing at a victory rally in Columbus, Ohio, wasted no time in effectively launching his general election campaign against Obama even before the Democratic results were in. "My friends, I'm the not the youngest candidate, but I am the most experienced," McCain said with a grin. "I know how the world works." While he did not name the Illinois senator, McCain attacked Obama implicitly for proposing "bombing our ally, Pakistan, and sitting down" with Iran.
McCain also echoed Clinton's assault on Obama's talent at speechmaking. "I will fight every moment of every day in this campaign to make sure Americans are not deceived by an eloquent but empty call for change," McCain said. And in another thematic strain that is likely to appear in the general election, McCain distanced himself from the Bush administration, implicitly suggesting that the president had lost the faith of the American people. The question for Americans, he said, is "will we make the right changes to restore the people's trust in their government."
Obama now looks close to unstoppable, although he has far fewer than the required number of delegates for nomination. In Wisconsin he overcame attacks on his integrity by the Clinton camp, which in recent days had accused him of plagiarizing speeches by his friend, Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts. Obama has also been attacked by both Clinton and McCain for appearing to fudge on an earlier pledge to use only public financing if his GOP opponent did the same. But that did not appear to slow his momentum either.
In a conference call with reporters before the results were in, Clinton's advisers said they remain confident about their prospects in Texas, despite polls suggesting Obama is surging in the state. One aide, Howard Wolfson, rejected a reporter's assertion that Clinton's once strong support in the Hispanic community has been "dropping since Super Tuesday." Latino voters remain a force for Clinton, Wolfson said, arguing that the campaign hasn't seen any "evidence of support dropping" among Latinos. "Just being down there [on the ground in Texas] … I'll tell you, the enthusiasm and depth of support is just profound." He went on to cite Clinton's "history with the Hispanic community."
But Clinton's advisers did try to play down expectations once again, bucking the conventional wisdom by suggesting that while Clinton needs to win on March 4, she does not need to do so with large margins. Her pollster Mark Penn said that a poll showing Clinton with as much as a 20-point lead in Ohio is "rather generous in its outcome." He added that just winning Ohio, even if only by a small margin, would be "powerful in terms of superdelegates, who both candidates are going to need." But Hillary Clinton needs much more than that now: she needs a victory. It is a prospect that seems to be receding from her with every passing contest.