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EARLY EDGE IN DELEGATE BATTLE GOES TO CLINTON

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared to have checked Sen. Barack Obama's national surge toward the Democratic presidential nomination Tuesday night, winning by comfortable margins in key Northeastern states while battling him to a standstill in the Midwest and South.

The final results of the Super Tuesday elections, in which the Democrats vied for more than 1,000 delegates in 22 states, were not quite clear at midnight, but Clinton claimed California, the day's biggest prize.

Earlier, Clinton had won the states essential to maintain her status as the Democratic front-runner, including New York, which she represents in the U.S. Senate, and New Jersey, where polls had showed Obama closing in.

She also won Tennessee and Oklahoma, but her campaign claimed her biggest win was Massachusetts, a liberal bastion whose senior senator, Ted Kennedy, had anointed Obama the heir of hope and change once promised by his brothers, President John F. Kennedy Jr. and candidate Robert Kennedy.

Obama, meanwhile, continued his romp in Southern states with large African-American populations, easily winning Alabama and Georgia, and he picked up his home state of Illinois. He also won Delaware, Connecticut and Utah.

He won more states overall, but her big wins in bigger states kept the delegate count virtually tied.

"There is one thing on this February night that we do not need the final results to know," Obama told supporters in Chicago. "Our time has come."

Clinton told cheering supporters in Manhattan, "Tonight we are hearing the voices of people across America." Reeling off the states she had won, she added, "And tonight, in record numbers, you voted not just to make history, but to remake America."

Neither campaign had expected Tuesday night's results to end the race for the Democratic nomination for president, and by all indications it won't.

But both were hoping to demonstrate national electability and secure momentum as they head into the next big round of primary elections. Both could make some claim to victory on those scores, although Obama's come-from-behind surge may not have come far enough.

"The momentum that closed the gap with Clinton was real, but only to the point of tightening the contest, not putting it away," said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow in governance at the Brookings Institution.

Most troubling for Obama were exit polls, like those from New Jersey, showing him generally unable to break the familiar voting patterns of past primaries, which could spell trouble for the rest of the campaign. Clinton continued to edge him among white voters, women and the working class, as well as Hispanic voters. Obama, who is black, continued to win African-Americans by significant margins, except in Clinton's home turf of New York City.

But Clinton's margins of victory generally were not large enough for her to claim that she is the inevitable nominee, despite leading by double digits in most polls only three weeks ago.

"We feel like we've had a good night, but this contest is far from over," Mark Penn, Clinton's chief strategist, said. "The American people are still very much interested in what both candidates have to say. ... This is not going to be decided anytime in the near future as far as we can see."

As the polls opened Tuesday, Clinton led Obama with 261 delegates to 202, thanks to her support from so-called super delegates - members of Congress, state officials and other party leaders who can support whom they like. Winning the Democratic nomination takes 2,025 delegates; more than half were up for grabs Tuesday.

But unlike the Republicans, the Democrats split delegates in each state, based on the votes they get statewide or by congressional district. That means Obama continued to amass delegates in states he lost.

"Clinton has a good organization, and that's going not to dry up," said Michael McDonald, an expert in campaigns and elections at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "They're going to continue battling on. ...

"It's difficult to say how far this extends, but we know they both have the resources to extend it as far as necessary."

He added, "I see them coming rather close in the next little regional primary" - in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., on Tuesday - "and it just continues on like that."

Mann said Obama has a legitimate shot at winning the remaining nine states that will hold elections this month, and the Clinton campaign acknowledged that Obama is likely to prevail in some of them, such as Louisiana on Saturday.

"But after that will be Ohio and Texas, which fall into the same pattern as tonight - big, populist states that we have run strongly in," Penn said.

Her campaign is building its organization in those states as well as in Pennsylvania, which votes April 22. So is Obama. On Tuesday, Clinton's campaign challenged Obama to four more debates, in hopes of drawing further contrasts with him.

Throughout the campaign, Clinton has touted her seven years in the Senate, eight years as President Bill Clinton's first lady and her time as first lady of Arkansas as proof that she has more experience than Obama, a first-term senator.

She also has worked to draw contrast between their health care plans - hers is more inclusive - and their positions on foreign policy, although the differences are small. Obama has stressed his status as a relative outsider, as well as his commitment to bipartisan cooperation.

"As the campaign plays itself out, we will enter ... a different phase," Penn said. "There will be comparisons of both records, people will begin to examine all of the (candidates) thoroughly, we'll have more debates ...

"It will be a different kind of campaign than the kind of campaign we're seeing here."

Wes Allison can be reached at allison@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0577.

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