WASHINGTON — Hillary Rodham Clinton won't catch Barack Obama in the race for Democratic delegates chosen in primaries and caucuses, even if she wins every remaining contest.
But Obama cannot win the nomination with just his pledged primary and caucus delegates either, according to an analysis by the Associated Press.
That sets the stage for a pitched battle for support among superdelegates, the party and elected officials who automatically attend the convention and can support whomever they choose.
Two months into the voting, Obama can claim the most delegates chosen by voters. Clinton can claim victories in most of the big states.
What should a superdelegate do? Unsurprisingly, the two campaigns have different takes on that question.
"It is very difficult to see any scenario that Hillary Clinton would get the nomination in a way that doesn't rip the party apart," said Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, an Obama supporter. "I think that it would be a terrible mistake for the Democrats to not accept the will of the people who have turned out in primaries and caucuses."
Clinton spokesman Doug Hattaway said Obama's lead in pledged delegates is "hardly a mandate."
"Some superdelegates will go with (the) pledged delegate count, but many will go with the candidate they think can win," he said. "We have a very compelling case to make on that front, given that we're winning general election swing states, must-win states and must-win constituencies."
Clinton won three out of four primaries this week, giving her campaign a much-needed boost after a month of defeats. But she picked up only 12 more delegates than Obama so far (the final count from Texas' caucus has not been reported), leaving him with a 140-delegate lead among those won in primaries and caucuses.
Only 614 delegates are available in the remaining contests, meaning that Clinton would have to win about 62 percent of the them to overtake Obama, according to the AP analysis.
That's nearly impossible, given the way Democrats award delegates proportionally.
Consider this: Clinton posted a big win in the Ohio primary Tuesday, beating Obama by about 10 percentage points. Her take: nine more delegates than him.
In the Texas primary, Clinton's margin of victory was smaller, about 3 percentage points, and her net gain was smaller, too: four more delegates than Obama. Obama could wipe out most or all of that advantage if early returns showing him winning in the Texas caucuses hold up
The biggest remaining primary is in Pennsylvania, which will have 158 delegates at stake on April 22. Clinton's team is optimistic about her chances there. She'll be campaigning hard in the state, as will Ed Rendell, Pennsylvania's popular governor, who is an enthusiastic supporter.
Obama is expected to win the Wyoming caucuses Saturday and the Mississippi primary on Tuesday, but Clinton is competing in both states to try to hold down his delegate total. Her advisers acknowledge that their previous system of focusing on certain states and largely ignoring others — particularly those holding caucuses — was a mistake and helped Obama build a significant lead among pledged delegates.
Obama has won nominating contests in 27 states and territories, giving him the lead in pledged delegates. But even if he wins every remaining pledged delegate — including 33 that haven't been awarded from previous races — he will fall short of the 2,025 needed to secure the Democratic nomination.
That's where the superdelegates come in, the nearly 800 party and elected officials who will decide the nomination if both candidates stay in the race.
Clinton leads in endorsements from superdelegates, 242 to 209. But that lead has shrunk in the past month. The lobbying of superdelegates has been fierce, with at least six Clinton superdelegates switching to Obama. So far, none of Obama's superdelegates has strayed, at least not publicly.