During the past six weeks, Barack Obama has thrown everything and then some at Pennsylvania, outspending Hillary Clinton 3-to-1 , traversing the state, and saturating its airwaves. The effort has pulled him out of his former 16-point ditch, but at the same time it has killed every shot he once had at pretending the Keystone State doesn’t matter to him. He admitted as much today, agreeing that a win is a win—and, implicitly, a loss is a loss.
But despite his best efforts, Obama doesn’t seem able to deliver the headshot. As Clinton herself asked today, “Why can’t he close the deal?”
The truth is, he can. No matter what happens tonight—well, barring an earth-shattering Clinton blowout—Obama will have an opportunity to snuff out Clinton’s candidacy over the coming weeks. Here’s how:
Drop a superdelegate bomb. Obama strategists say they have some superdelegates lined up to endorse after Pennsylvania votes. Time to line up some more. Obama has narrowed Clinton’s superdelegate lead to 22. If he were to erase that lead entirely in the day or two after Pennsylvania, the game would be over. Whether the trickle becomes a flood depends on the Pennsylvania margin. But either way, Clinton already needs about 80 percent of the remaining uncommitted superdelegates (not including add-ons) to catch up in the overall delegate count. The higher that number climbs, the bleaker the outlook.
Spend Hillary into the ground. Obama outspent Clinton threefold in Pennsylvania airtime. And the recent flurry of “response” ads has forced Clinton to spend when she would rather save. But he can afford it: In March, Obama raised twice as much cash as Clinton did and began April with $42 million in the bank for the primary, compared to her $9.3 million. With $10 million in debt, the Clinton camp is officially in the red. The more Obama can exploit this gap, the better for him. Clinton’s team can claim that it makes them the underdog, but expectations stop mattering toward the end of the race. After a certain point, the underdog just becomes the loser.
Go heavy on Indiana, light on North Carolina. If Clinton pulls off a narrow victory in Pennsylvania, all eyes will turn to Indiana as the next battleground. It looks to be a fair fight: Indiana has a large population of Clinton-friendly working-class whites, while Obama has a near-home court advantage. Recent polls show Obama leading there, but not irreversibly so. North Carolina, meanwhile, is a lock for Obama, which will only extend his pledged delegate lead. But right now the race is about superdelegates. And it’s Indiana where the remaining uncommitted supers will be looking for signs that Clinton lives.
Shift focus back to McCain. For a while there, Obama was dinging McCain as much as Clinton. (Albeit without much success—that “100 years” gambit didn’t go so well .) But a combination of Bitter-cling-elitist-gate and the looming Pennsylvania vote pulled him back into Primary-land. Over the next two weeks, Obama needs to strike a balance between knocking Clinton out and engaging McCain. But the two can also go hand in hand. Go after McCain’s economic plan flip-flop, hit him on the war, engage him on Iran. In other words, show that you can push McCain back on his heels. Because right now, Clinton’s entire candidacy rests on her claim that you can’t.