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Change Versus Experience on the Potomac

Author: Robert McMahon, Editor
February 13, 2008

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Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), pressing his message of political change, continues to carry a post-Super Tuesday winning streak in the Democratic presidential nominating race. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), meanwhile, is steadily amassing GOP support on the strength of his experience on national security issues, exit polls say. Both senators swept their respective “Potomac primaries”—Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, DC—on February 12 to maintain their momentum (CNN).

Obama’s wins nudged him past Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) in the race for delegates, although both have just more than half the number needed to win the nomination. He captured “change voters,” as he has in many previous states, but the gap was especially big, with exit polls showing those voters outnumbered voters who placed more value on experience by more than two-to-one in Maryland and Virginia. Voters also favored Obama on the economy—the biggest concern in both states, polls say—and for his position on Iraq, although both candidates favor an early withdrawal of U.S. troops. Exit polls were not conducted (WashPost) in the Washington, DC primary. In another sign of his momentum, Obama won the support in Virginia of a majority of Hispanic voters, an ethnic segment so far dominated by Clinton, according to exit polls cited by the website Politico.

Among Republicans, McCain’s performance in Virginia showed he continues to struggle to win over the party’s conservative and evangelical voters. Main challenger Mike Huckabee polled strongly among the state’s large number of social conservatives and won almost as many Republicans who said the economy was their chief concern. McCain continued to lose among Republicans who listed illegal immigration as their most important issue, although that represented only about one-fifth of the party’s voters. But overall McCain, a strong proponent of the U.S. military surge in Iraq, won the strong backing of voters citing Iraq and terrorism as concerns (AP). He has won two-thirds of the GOP delegate count and is seen increasingly as his party’s presumptive nominee.

Obama now has won eight straight nominating contests since Super Tuesday and is favored in upcoming polls in Hawaii, his state of birth, and Wisconsin. Clinton is fixed on winning the delegate-rich states of Texas and Ohio on March 4. She kicked off those campaigns even as Potomac primary results were coming in with a rally in El Paso, Texas. Her campaign signaled that her international security experience made her best suited to take on McCain in the general election. Clinton declared at her El Paso event: “I’m tested, I’m ready, let’s make it happen!

In the meantime, Obama and McCain used their victory speeches on February 12 to take aim at each other. Obama tied McCain to what he said were the flawed Bush administration national security policies, saying “we need to end the mindset that got us into war.” McCain countered in his speech with a warning that the eventual Democratic nominee “will paint a picture of the world in which America’s mistakes are a greater threat to our security than the malevolent intentions of an enemy that despises us and our ideals.”

So far, the Democrats appear to be winning the voter turnout war (WSJ) over the Republicans in the nominating process, with about one-third of the states left to go. In Virginia, for example, Obama gained more than 600,000 votes, which was about one-third more votes than McCain and Huckabee combined. CFR’s Peter Beinart notes heavy Democratic turnouts and fundraising efforts as a major factor since the campaign voting season kicked off with the January 3 Iowa caucuses.

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