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Tight race puts W.Va. in play for Clinton, Obama

A full-fledged Democratic presidential campaign will be waged across West Virginia in the next three weeks, after Sen. Hillary Clinton's double-digit victory in Pennsylvania Tuesday.

"If it had been 7 percent instead of 10 percent, [Sen. Barack Obama] would've claimed victory," said Robert Rupp, a West Virginia Wesleyan professor.

Her convincing win, national political experts agree, leaves her in position to contest the remaining primary elections, including the West Virginia primary.

Rupp expects Clinton, D-N.Y., and Obama, D-Ill., to spend much of the next two weeks in Indiana and North Carolina, which have May 6 primary elections. At this point, Clinton is expected to carry Indiana, while Obama is expected to win North Carolina.

The candidates will then turn their full attention to the Mountain State and its May 13 primary, he said, with neighboring Kentucky's primary election set for one week later.

"They're going to be coming, but they're only going to have one week," said Rupp.

The only public poll conducted in West Virginia was a Rasmussen poll in March that showed Clinton with twice as much support as Obama among Democrats.

"Sen. Obama's campaign is working hard to bring his message of real change for working families to the voters of West Virginia, but we know we're the underdog in this race," said Thomas Bowen, Obama campaign spokesman in West Virginia. "Sen. Clinton holds a considerable lead in the polls, but we're focused on building a grassroots organization throughout the state."

Bowen said the campaign plans to establish up to six offices across the state to help mobilize voters and get their message to them. The campaign has already moved more than 20 field workers into the state, with more expected.

"I think there will be vigorous campaigns by both senators, and I think it will be good for West Virginia and the nation," said Charleston lawyer Pat Maroney, the state Democratic Party national committeeman and one of three West Virginia superdelegates committed to Clinton. Not surprisingly, he expects the former first lady to win the state.

Clinton supporters continued Wednesday to tout her victory in Pennsylvania.

"It was a decisive victory," New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine said in a national conference call on Wednesday.

Obama easily outspent Clinton over the past three weeks in Pennsylvania, bringing her lead, which was more than 20 percent, down to 10 percent at the end.

"It's an extremely strong showing by Sen. Clinton," said Maroney "It demonstrates the key states for a November win have all been won by her."

Rupp said to expect Obama to purchase numerous television ads in West Virginia, much like he did for the recent Pennsylvania primary.

"He's going to have a whole bunch of ads," the professor said. "He has money, he has field workers, but will he make the investment?"

Bowen said more West Virginians will know who Obama is and what he stands for. "Some people don't know he's a coal-state senator," he said.

Corzine said soaring gasoline prices will probably be more on voters' minds in May than coal issues. "The economy is the issue in people's minds," he said.

For both candidates, Rupp believes the election is about more than the state's 39 delegates to the national convention, only 18 of which will be elected in the May 13 primary. (Ten others are superdelegates and can vote for whomever they choose. The remainder will be chosen at the state party convention in June, based upon the percentage of votes each candidate received in the May 13 election.)

Three superdelegates - Maroney, party vice chairwoman Belinda Biafore and national committeewoman Marie Prezioso - have committed to Clinton. Two others - U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller and U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall - have committed to Obama. The others remain uncommitted.

Clinton needs to "show momentum is on her side" in order to try to recruit superdelegates to her side, Rupp said - her only chance of catching Obama in the number of committed convention delegates.

"She's got to win this state [to keep her campaign alive]," Rupp said.

For a Democrat to win in November, they have to able to win in Ohio, Pennsylvania and other large states, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland said on the Clinton conference call. She has won in those states, as well as Florida, Michigan, California and Texas, Strickland.

He and other participants called upon superdelegates to "use their good judgment" and choose a candidate who can win in November.

To contact staff writer Tom Searls, use e-mail or call 348-5198.


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