| CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The Democratic presidential race runs on two tracks now, one snaking through the West Virginia primary Tuesday and the other mapped out by Barack Obama through battleground states in the fall.
SAVE MONEY ON TRAVEL DEALS
Hillary Rodham Clinton had every reason to expect a big victory over Obama in West Virginia yet scant hope it could turn around her presidential bid.
She campaigned, though, like it mattered, even as Obama did little more than a drop-by in a state that seemed poised to shun him.
Interest is keen in the primary, judging by a record turnout of more than 70,000 people who cast ballots in person before Tuesday in the state's liberal early voting system.
The Illinois senator may be only a few weeks from clinching the Democratic nomination, no matter what happens in West Virginia or in another Clinton stronghold, Kentucky, a week later.
In his tone, words and itinerary, Obama is focused on Republican John McCain almost to the exclusion of his fading Democratic rival. He planned to spend primary night in Missouri, a bellwether in the fall general campaign.
Clinton was not going quietly. Not yet.
The New York senator implored West Virginians in four stops Monday to send her forward with a convincing win.
"This may be the most important vote you've ever cast", she told a crowd in Fairmont. "Let's have a huge vote in West Virginia."
And she invoked history to counter the inexorable math of the delegate count that's falling into place for her opponent.
"I keep telling people, no Democrat has won the White House since 1916 without winning West Virginia", she said at Tudor's Biscuit World in Charleston.
Obama made only one appearance in the state, talking up his love of country and conviction that veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars deserve better care from their government when they come home.
"At a time when we're facing the largest homecoming since the Second World War, the true test of our patriotism is whether we will serve our returning heroes as well as they've served us", he said.
For only the second time in many weeks, Obama wore an American flag pin on his suit jacket. He has said he stopped wearing such pins routinely because he felt they became a substitute for "true patriotism" after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
In every step now, he's mindful of the gathering struggle with McCain, a veteran both of politics and war who will exploit Obama's short national resume as surely as Clinton has tried to do.
Obama is mounting a two-week tour that will take him to the remaining primary states but concentrate on fall battlegrounds including Florida and Michigan.
It will be Obama's first visit to either state since he pledged nine months ago not to campaign for their primaries because the contests were held before Feb. 5 in defiance of party rules.
Clinton won both states, although Obama had his name removed from Michigan's ballot, and no delegates were awarded. Restoring the delegates is a major part of Clinton's long-shot strategy for the nomination.
Clinton's last best hope is to use strong showings in West Virginia and Kentucky to make the case that Obama is weak among key Democratic constituents.
They are, most prominently, blue-collar, white voters, an abundant proportion of the electorate in West Virginia and a leading reason why Clinton ran strong in the state.
Expectations may have been set unhelpfully high, however, when state Senate Majority Leader H. Truman Chafin introduced her to a crowd in Logan on Monday.
"You think this crowd's noisy, just wait till we win like 80-20", Chafin said.
An outcome anywhere near that would not materially change Obama's prospects nationally. But it would lay bare the racial divisions and other polarizing aspects of the protracted and often bitter Democratic contest.
Increasing numbers of Democratic primary voters have become entrenched behind their candidate and said they would not support the other candidate in the fall - a rift the party is eager to start healing.
To that end, the party leaders known as superdelegates have been moving to Obama's side, 26 of them in the week since he routed Clinton in North Carolina and narrowly lost Indians.
At that pace, he would reach the number of delegates needed to clinch the nomination - 2,025 - in three weeks, when delegates from the remaining primaries are included.
West Virginia had 28 delegates at stake Tuesday. - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Calvin Woodward reported from Washington. - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Related News Topics:
Party politics and electioneering
Top U.S. news
The top news stories of the day
Party politics and electioneering
U.S. government news