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Obama wins Maine, erodes Hillary's lead

world Updated: Feb 11, 2008 18:18 IST

AP
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Barack Obama scored a clean sweep of five weekend contests, eroding rival Hillary Rodham Clinton's narrow lead in the Democratic presidential race and prompting the former first lady to reshuffle her campaign staff in a bid to halt his burst of new momentum.

Even before the loss in Maine on Sunday, Clinton, stung by defeats a day earlier in Nebraska, Washington state, Louisiana and the U.S. Virgin Islands, replaced her campaign manager in a shake-up of a presidential campaign struggling to overcome Obama's financial and political rally that came on the back of his impressive showing in last week's "Super Tuesday" series of Democratic contests in 22 states.

The campaign reshuffle in which Patti Solis Doyle was replaced by longtime Clinton aide Maggie Williams _ came ahead of nomination races Tuesday in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. that Clinton needs to widen her delegate lead in a deadlocked race that could last until the party's national convention in August. The two states and the U.S. capital all have a sizable number of black Democratic voters, a constituency that has aided Obama in earlier contests.

In the latest overall totals in The Associated Press count, Clinton had 1,136 delegates to 1,108 for Obama. The totals include so-called superdelegates, which are party leaders not chosen at primaries or caucuses, free to change their minds. A total of 2,025 delegates is required to win the nomination.

In Maine, with 99 percent of the participating precincts reporting, Obama led with 59 percent of the vote, to 40 percent for Clinton. Obama won 15 of Maine's delegates to the national convention and Clinton won nine.

Obama, who seeks to be the U.S.'s first black president, was buoyant after his weekend winning sweep. He even won a Grammy on Sunday for his audio version of his book "The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts On Reclaiming The American Dream," beating former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter in the best spoken word album category.

"I have the ability to bring people together," he said. Because of that, he said, "I think I can beat John McCain more effectively," in a reference that highlighted a shift in both his and Clinton's campaign aimed at addressing the challenge the presumptive Republican nominee would pose in the November general elections.

Earlier Sunday, Obama, campaigning in Virginia said Clinton is "a capable person" and "vast improvement" over Republican President George W. Bush, but added that the public sees the New York senator as part of a divisive political era when the government was gridlocked and Republicans won control of Congress. Clinton was not the only presidential candidate nursing weekend losses.

McCain took the weekend off from campaigning despite embarrassing, albeit academic, losses against preacher-turned-politician Mike Huckabee in two Republican races on Saturday. Huckabee, a favorite of evangelical Christians, beat McCain in Kansas and Louisiana, highlighting the difficulty the veteran Arizona senator faces in convincing the party's core conservative and Christian blocs that he is, indeed, one of them. McCain, however, remained far ahead of Huckabee in the delegate count, and retained his virtually assured nomination that came on the back of rival Mitt Romney's decision to suspend his campaign. McCain has 719 delegates out of a total 1,191 needed to secure the Republican nomination. Huckabee had 234 delegates. Since his string of Super Tuesday wins, McCain has concentrated on wooing conservatives who view him as a political maverick on key issues like immigration and tax cuts. The former Vietnam prisoner-of-war and decorated Navy pilot secured a boost Sunday when Bush referred to him in a taped interview as a "true conservative." But the president also stressed that McCain must do more to win over conservatives.

Bush's embrace could prove troublesome for McCain by reducing his appeal to independent voters in the November election. Bush reached his lowest approval rating in The Associated Press-Ipsos poll on Friday as only 30 percent said they like the job he is doing, including an all-time low in his support by Republicans. McCain narrowly won the Republican race in Washington state on Saturday, but Huckabee's campaign on Sunday called the final results in that state "dubious." His campaign chairman, Ed Rollins, accused the state's Republican Party chairman of calling the race too early for McCain leaving 1,500 votes uncounted when the two candidates were just 242 votes apart. "That is an outrage," Rollins said.

The campaign said it would explore its legal options. Washington's state Republican Party chairman, Luke Esser, said by Sunday evening that McCain's lead had narrowed, but only slightly, with about 93 percent of results in.

"I'm even more confident now," Esser said. "These latest batch of results confirms what I said last night. It's a close race, but it's clear Sen. McCain will win the Washington state precinct caucuses."

Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, has vowed to stay in the race until a candidate earns the delegates needed to win the nomination. He was dismissed as "total nonsense" suggestions that he quit the race so the party could maintain its resources for the November election.

McCain appeared likely to rebound on Tuesday in the next Republican contests. The Mason-Dixon polls showed the Arizona senator leading Huckabee by nearly 30 percentage point margins in both Virginia and Maryland. The Republicans also compete in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.

In the Democratic race, Obama appeared poised to sweep Tuesday's trio of races.

Former President Bill Clinton, who visited black churches in Maryland and Washington, D.C. in a bid to cut into Obama's huge lead among black voters, said that having to choose between his wife and Obama for the Democratic nomination is a God-given "dilemma." New polls released Sunday showed Obama leading by 16 percentage points in Virginia and 18 percentage points in Maryland. The polls conducted Feb. 7-8 by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points. The remaining Democratic calendar for February does not look favorable for Clinton. But she is looking for a big rebound in the high-stakes March 4 primaries in Texas and Ohio.

Clinton also is vying with Obama for the endorsement of Democratic former candidate John Edwards, who dropped out the race last month. Clinton quietly visited Edwards last Thursday in North Carolina, and Obama reportedly planned to do the same Monday after two rallies in Maryland.

Associated Press writers Kevin Freking, Beth Fouhy, Stephen Ohlemacher and Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington and Glenn Adams in Augusta, Maine, contributed to this report.