WASHINGTON – Hillary Clinton beat Barack Obama in the Texas, Ohio and Rhode Island presidential primaries Tuesday, dramatically breaking the Illinois senator’s monthlong winning streak and guaranteeing that the two Democrats’ tense duel will continue through Pennsylvania’s April 22 primary.
Obama, who’d won 12 contests in a row, including Tuesday’s Vermont primary, had hoped to secure the nomination by winning the two big prizes, Ohio and Texas.
Instead, Clinton ran strongly among union members, Hispanics, older voters and those eager for a strong commander in chief to take Ohio, Texas and Rhode Island.
She still has a difficult path to the nomination. Final delegate tallies were incomplete early today, but Clinton wasn’t expected to narrow Obama’s lead significantly.
But by winning Ohio and Texas, Clinton solidified her claim on big states that will be important in the November general election. She won California, New York and New Jersey previously. And she can now claim momentum in a contest in which she has increased her attacks on Obama and begun to question his fitness to handle crises.
The next big Democratic showdown is seven weeks away in Pennsylvania on April 22. Minor contests in Wyoming and Mississippi are ahead in the coming week. A dozen remaining primaries and caucuses are scheduled between now and June 7.
A jubilant Clinton declared victory in Columbus, Ohio, and vowed to continue. “You know what they say: As Ohio goes, so goes the nation,” a beaming Clinton said. “Well, this nation’s coming back and so is this campaign. The people of Ohio have said loudly and clearly we’re going on, we’re going strong and we’re going all the way.”
Clinton’s share of the Ohio vote was 55 percent in nearly complete returns, and she was winning nearly 51 percent in Texas.
Obama, speaking to a rally in San Antonio, had a serious, almost grim look as he congratulated Clinton for a “hard-fought race.” Then he declared: “We are on our way to winning the nomination.”
Clinton topped Obama with a two-pronged strategy that she’s likely to use again as the contest heads for Pennsylvania: Show her more compassionate side and raise doubts about Obama’s fitness to lead the country.
Her victories leave the two Democrats still battling for the right to oppose Arizona Sen. John McCain, who clinched the Republican presidential nomination Tuesday with a victory in Texas.
In the final days, Clinton stopped at a Bob Evans fast-food restaurant, appeared on the David Letterman and Jon Stewart TV shows and spoofed herself on “Saturday Night Live” in her attempt to show her compassionate side. She held town hall meetings in small, rural Ohio communities and talked one-on-one with voters about their health care concerns.
She also continued to stress Obama’s lack of experience in foreign affairs, notably by running an ad dramatizing a 3 a.m. phone call to the White House and telling viewers that “something’s happening in the world. Your vote will decide who answers that call.”
Exit polls suggested that the strategy worked in Ohio. One-fourth of Ohio voters said that only Clinton had a “clear plan for the country’s problems,” and 97 percent of them voted for her. Fifty-seven percent thought Clinton was more qualified to be commander in chief.
Clinton also raised doubts about Obama’s views on the North American Free Trade Agreement, the 1993 treaty that’s widely reviled among struggling Ohio residents, although she remained silent about NAFTA when it was one of her husband’s top presidential priorities.
Nearly 60 percent of voters said the economy was the race’s major issue; Iraq was a distant second at 19 percent. Those who listed the economy first, as well as union households – about one-third of the vote – gave Clinton a slight edge.
A key Obama adviser met with Canadian officials in early February, and a memo from one Canadian who attended said that he called Obama’s NAFTA views little more than political positioning. At first, Obama denied any such contact, but Monday he was forced to concede that a meeting took place. He tried to turn Clinton’s fire back on her, as his backers contended that Clinton herself had little experience in foreign policy – and that she was a desperate candidate. “They have run a pretty negative campaign over the last couple of weeks,” Obama said Tuesday afternoon. “I have said consistently that we do things differently. It’s worked for us so far.”
Clinton’s charges, though, got voters thinking more about Obama’s qualifications, particularly in Ohio, where people are increasingly worried about the sagging economy. “Obama’s lying about his view on NAFTA. I think he was really for it,” said Tony Tesso, a retired manufacturing manager from Ontario, Ohio.
Betty Frater, a Mansfield business owner, doesn’t buy Obama’s claim that Clinton’s experience is questionable. “Her husband ran the country for eight years,” Frater said, “and behind every man is a good woman.”
By the numbers
(Partial count; 2,025 needed)
Barack Obama 1,477
Hillary Clinton 1,391
(Partial count; 1,191 needed)
Mike Huckabee 261