Clinton's victory gives her one last shot to wrest the nomination from Obama.

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April 23 2008 12:35 AM

She's Got a Friend in Pennsylvania

Clinton's victory gives her one last shot to wrest the nomination from Obama.

Hillary Clinton at the PA primary
Hillary Clinton

Someone should call a priest, or the National Enquirer: Hillary Clinton has now come back from the dead four times. Her win in the Pennsylvania primary wasn't just a numerical victory. It also gave her a new justification for her long-shot effort to win back a nomination that was once considered a lock for her.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Before the votes were tallied, Clinton and her aides were saying, slightly desperately, that her victory would be important no matter what the margin. "A win is a win," they said over and again. They were clinging to the idea of mathematical certainty, a strategy that made no sense because, in the larger race, it is her opponent who has the ironclad numerical advantage. Barack Obama leads Clinton in delegates, victories, and the popular vote, and it's almost impossible for her to catch up.

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That's even truer after tonight. Despite her victory, Clinton's chances of catching Obama among pledged delegates have disappeared. Unless Obama is caught giving all of his campaign cash to Tony Rezko, she's not going to win future contests by a big enough margin to tie him. She narrowed Obama's lead among the popular vote, but not by much. But she won something more important: a new story to tell to superdelegates who are still trying to decide which candidate to back.

In her victory speech, Clinton said, "The tide is turning." Whether that's true will become evident in the coming days. Will the money start coming in, and will the superdelegates stop moving toward Barack Obama? (The campaign says the former has already started, with $2.5 million raised just since Pennsylvania was called for her.) If those two things happen, she will have stopped the tide, but to reverse it she will need to accomplish the very difficult task of winning over superdelegates who are resistant to the idea of reversing the will of the elected delegates to deny an African-American the nomination.

The only way Clinton can actually reverse the tide is if she can convince those superdelegates that the Pennsylvania victory proved Barack Obama is fundamentally flawed. This is more than an academic exercise. She needs to equip them with a set of arguments so strong that they can weather the violent uproar that will erupt in the base if superdelegates put her over the top.

Clinton has some useful data to mine in the exit polls, particularly about those blue-collar voters we've been watching all election. Obama just can't get to them. He's tried everything: policy changes, bowling, drinking beer, and shelving all talk of arugula. He still lost to Clinton 54-46 among that group. The Clinton team will argue that without these voters, Obama will be like Michael Dukakis, a liberal favorite unable to compete against Republicans in Ohio and Pennsylvania because he can't woo regular people. Obama did win these voters in New Hampshire and Missouri but hasn't won among them since the Wisconsin primary in mid-February.

Clinton has a compounding effect in the numbers. She won by 12 percentage points among those who decided in the last week, a period during which Obama suffered blowback from his characterization of small-town voters and gave a lackluster debate performance. He also went negative in the days before the election, potentially risking his signature attribute: his promise to deliver a new, high-minded kind of politics. Clinton can argue voters looked at Obama's closing performance in the last week and ran from him.

For those still debating whether Obama's remarks about small-town voters harmed him, the data suggest he hurt himself. Among gun owners, Clinton won 60 percent of the vote. Among small-town voters, she won 59 percent of the vote to Obama's 41 percent. In previous contests, Obama's had a slim 49 percent to 45 percent edge among small-town voters. Clinton also won among religious voters.

As the two candidates spoke at the end of the night, the battle lines for the next stage of the contest were clear. Clinton took the high road, barely mentioning her opponent but promising that she would fight for voters as hard as she's fought for her survival. Obama was sharp-edged. Though he quieted supporters who booed Clinton, saying she had run a good race, he then commenced filleting her. Obama never mentioned his opponent by name but told voters they had a choice: his vision or one that tries to "look tough on national security" (a reference to Clinton's hawkish statements on Iran), uses "fear as a tactic" (a reference to Clinton's last ad), and "says and does whatever it takes to win the next election … calculate[s] and poll-test[s] our positions [telling] everyone exactly what they want to hear."  Obama was making the same argument against Clinton that she is making against him: His opponent is fundamentally flawed. For those in the Democratic Party who are worried that the race has gotten too ugly, it looks like it's going to get even uglier.