Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama spent the final, tension-filled hours before today’s Super Tuesday primaries squeezing out votes in the east coast battlefield states where opinion polls place the contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination almost neck and neck.
Leaving their spouses to fight it out in the west, Clinton and Obama campaigned in the New England states of Massachusetts and Connecticut. Obama also visited New Jersey, long regarded as Clinton’s backyard – she is a senator in neighboring New York – but where he is fast closing the gap in the polls.
The key states are those that are delegate-rich and almost all too close to call: California, Missouri, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey.
There was a sense of exhilaration inside Obama’s camp yesterday at the momentum he has built up during the past week. At a rally in New Jersey, he said that after a year "criss-crossing the country and engaging in a conversation with the American people, my bet has paid off. They are ready to write a new chapter in the American story."
David Axelrod, his campaign director, dropped his normal caution and spoke as if the Democratic contest had been won. "The Clinton campaign has given us a very hard battle. They have been good sparring partners," he said.
During the past few weeks Obama has succeeded in winning a series of surprise endorsements and at the New Jersey rally yesterday he was introduced by Robert de Niro, a New York icon. The actor said he had never made a political speech before, but that Obama had inspired him. "One person has given me hope, has made me believe that we can make a change."
One of Obama’s advisers, who preferred to remain anonymous, said the contender was banking on a repeat today of his victory in the South Carolina primary last month – where 43% of those who voted made up their minds only in the last 24 hours.
But the adviser said he thought the struggle with Clinton would continue beyond today. "I do not think Super Tuesday will deliver a knockout blow for either of them," he said.
Clinton so far has 261 delegates to the party convention in the summer that, theoretically, will choose the Democratic party’s nominee for November’s presidential election and Obama has 190. At stake in today’s 22-state contest are another 1,681 delegates.
While winning a majority of the states or a higher proportion of the votes will allow the leading Democratic candidate to claim a moral victory, more important for each camp will be how many delegates they can accumulate.
Stephen Hess, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution, said: "I think she will get a bigger bounce. He is closing fast, but not fast enough. I am assuming she is going to pull ahead."
But he believed that Obama might do better in the post-Super Tuesday contests. "If that is the case, it could be be a very long process," he said.
While Americans are more skeptical about opinion pollsters after their dismal performance in predicting the result of the early primaries, they consistently show an extraordinary narrowing of Clinton’s earlier double-digit lead. The New York Times yesterday put Clinton and Obama jointly on 41% nationwide. Another poll for CNN yesterday put Obama on 49%, to Clinton’s 46%.
Obama, who took in $32m in donations last month, has spent $11m so far on the Super Tuesday states and six more states due to vote in the coming weeks. He paid $250,000 for a TV advert during Sunday night’s Super Bowl. He was the only politician to stump up for the most expensive advertising slots of the year – the football final is watched by almost half the population.
Clinton spent the final hours trying to capitalize on her appeal among women, hosting an interactive coast-to-coast discussion from New York that was scheduled to go out across the country via the internet. She was also scheduled to appear on the prime time Late Show With David.