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Obama rides hot streak into next U.S. contests

WASHINGTON - Democrat Barack Obama on Monday rode a weekend hot streak into the next round of presidential contests, but rival Hillary Clinton shrugged off the setbacks and expressed confidence about her prospects.
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama pauses while addressing a campaign rally at an arena in Baltimore, Maryland, February 11, 2008. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Obama is favored over Clinton on Tuesday in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, the latest battlegrounds in a tight back-and-forth struggle between the two candidates for the Democratic nomination in November's election.

At stake in Tuesday's voting are 168 pledged delegates to this summer's nominating conventions. Polls close at 7 p.m. EST/ (2400 GMT) in Virginia and at 8 p.m. EST/ (0100 GMT on Wednesday) in Maryland and the District.

The two contenders crisscrossed the area around the nation's capital on Monday, hunting for support in a presidential race where momentum has been difficult to sustain.

Obama swept four contests over the weekend in the states of Maine, Louisiana, Nebraska and Washington, extending a slight lead in the battle for pledged delegates who select the nominee.

Obama, an Illinois senator, now has 943 pledged delegates to Clinton's 895, according to a count by MSNBC -- well short of the 2,025 needed to clinch the Democratic nomination.

Clinton, a New York senator, shook up her campaign staff on Sunday, replacing campaign manager Patty Solis Doyle with longtime aide Maggie Williams. But she voiced confidence about her campaign's future.

"If you look at the states that are upcoming I'm very confident," Clinton told reporters at a General Motors plant in White Marsh, Maryland, near Baltimore. "This is an ongoing contest and I feel very good about it."

But Clinton already was looking past the three contests on Tuesday and next week's battles in Wisconsin and Hawaii -- all of which favor Obama -- to focus instead on crucial March 4 contests in the big states of Texas and Ohio.

"I am absolutely looking to Ohio and Texas because we know that those are states where they represent the broad electorate in this country," Clinton said. "They represent the kind of voters that will have to be convinced and won over in the general election."

The two candidates agreed to another one-on-one debate in Austin, Texas, on Feb. 21, two days after the Wisconsin and Hawaii contests. They also will meet in a Cleveland, Ohio, debate on Feb. 26.

Obama's planned meeting with former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who recently dropped his presidential bid but has not made an endorsement, was postponed. Obama said it would be rescheduled.

"We're gonna make it happen," he told reporters during a stop at a coffee shop in Silver Spring, Maryland, in the suburbs of Washington.

Clinton wooed Edwards on Thursday in North Carolina.


Clinton said she had the best chance of beating Republican front-runner John McCain, an Arizona senator who has all but clinched the nomination but lost two of three contests over the weekend to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

"We have to start imagining right now what it will take for our nominee to go toe-to-toe with John McCain on national security, on defense, on homeland security," she said. "I feel totally comfortable standing up there with John McCain."

Clinton strategist Mark Penn said in a memo the former U.S. first lady would be better able to withstand Republican attacks in a general election, having faced them for years.

"So far, the Republicans have been laying low. Sen. Obama has never faced a credible Republican opponent or the Republican attack machine, so voters are taking a chance that his current poll numbers will hold up after the Republicans get going," Penn said.

McCain still faces opposition in his own party from conservatives unhappy with his views on immigration and other issues. But he has won more than 700 of the 1,191 delegates needed for nomination -- an overwhelming lead on Huckabee, who has barely more than 200.

"I never expected a unanimous vote although I certainly would like to have that. But I think we will continue to win primaries across the country, including tomorrow. I have great confidence that we will," McCain told reporters in Annapolis, Maryland.

McCain, a former Navy fighter pilot and Vietnam prisoner of war, said reuniting a fractured Republican Party would take time but he would be helped by facing Democrats like Obama and Clinton, who hold sharply different positions.

"I've said that we have a lot of work to do to unite the party," he said. "Our party is dispirited because of spending and corruption as we all know, and we've got to re-energize our base."

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