SAN ANTONIO – Hillary Rodham Clinton, once seen as a lock for the Democratic nomination, battled Saturday in possibly the last weekend of her presidential campaign, struggling to reverse a tide of money and momentum that has turned dramatically toward Barack Obama.
The New York senator stormed across Texas, questioning Obama’s readiness to lead, particularly on national security issues.
“You are in effect hiring the next president,” Clinton told supporters at a get-out-the-vote rally at a San Antonio high school. “What you’ve got to decide is: Who do you want to hire?”
The Illinois senator touched down in Rhode Island as well as Ohio.
Obama targeted Clinton with some of his harshest criticism of the campaign, knocking her for taking money from federal lobbyists, voting for “George Bush’s war in Iraq” and voting in favor of a bankruptcy bill that made it “harder for families to climb out of debt.”
The three states and Vermont will vote Tuesday in contests that could effectively settle the Democratic fight.
A consensus emerged as the candidates caromed across the country: Clinton must win Texas and Ohio to have any serious hope of sustaining her bid to become the nation’s first female president. A split decision would not suffice, analysts said, and winning narrowly may not help.
“We’re reaching a point where not all voters, but lots of voters are starting to feel it’s time for the party to coalesce around a candidate,” said Geoffrey D. Garin, a veteran Democratic pollster who is unaligned in the contest. “The Clinton campaign has to have a compelling and persuasive reason to go on. … She’s got to come out of Tuesday with people believing that she has a realistic path to the nomination.”
The political math seems to work against the former front-runner. Obama has opened a small but growing lead of delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Unless Clinton starts winning big – and polling in Texas and Ohio suggests that will be difficult – she could have a tough time overtaking Obama.
“We have to maintain our delegate lead and make sure that we don’t get blown out in those two states,” Obama told reporters earlier this week as he campaigned across Texas. “If we come out of the four contests on Tuesday with a gap in the delegate count of 100 or 150, which we have right now, then I continue to believe that we will go to the convention with the most earned delegates and believe that we should be the nominee.”
On Saturday, Clinton continued her attacks on Obama as a prospective commander in chief, telling reporters his thin congressional resume was scant preparation for the menace he would face in office.
“His entire campaign is based on making a speech in 2002,” she said, referring to Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war. “I give him credit for making the speech. But the speech was not followed up by action.”
She pressed her case before a crowd of about 1,500 supporters in Fort Worth. “This is a war-time election,” Clinton said. “We have a war to end in Iraq and a war to win in Afghanistan. … We have real enemies, sitting in some cave somewhere, trying to figure out how to hurt us again.”
Obama fired back in Rhode Island, accusing Clinton of political opportunism.
“Real change isn’t about changing your position to fit the politics of the moment,” he said at Rhode Island College in Providence. Real change, he went on, is not voting for war in Iraq and then describing it as “actually a vote for more diplomacy.
“The title of the bill was ‘A Resolution to Authorize the Use of the United States Armed Forces Against Iraq,’ ” Obama said. “That sounds like you were voting for authorizing the use of armed forces against Iraq. I knew what it was. Lincoln Chaffee knew what it was.”
He referred to the former Republican senator from Rhode Island, who has endorsed Obama and attended Saturday’s rally.
Obama and Clinton have traced divergent paths over the past month since they effectively fought to a draw on Super Tuesday. Riding his win streak, Obama has outperformed Clinton in virtually every meaningful measure.
Over the past week he has drawn huge crowds, filling arenas on a tour that more often resembled a rock show than a run for political office: 8,000 people in San Antonio; 10,000 in Providence, R.I.; 11,000 in Dayton, Ohio; 13,000 in Fort Worth; 15,000 in Toledo, Ohio. Clinton’s crowds, by contrast, rarely exceeded 2,000. (That would normally be an impressive number.)
She raised $35 million in February alone. But Obama collected even more, according to campaign manager David Plouffe, adding more than 200,000 donors to the rolls. (The Obama campaign has until later this month to report its monthly total; February’s sum could exceed $50 million.)