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Why Pennsylvania Matters

By John McIntyre

Barack Obama has had three previous opportunities to knock Hillary Clinton out of the race. First, in New Hampshire in early January where all the polls pointed to an Obama win; second, on Super Tuesday in early February where a win in California (where the polls were tied) would have been enough to cripple the Clinton campaign; and then most recently in Ohio and Texas in early March, where a popular vote win in either state would have been enough to effectively knock Clinton out of the race.

Senator Obama has another opportunity tomorrow in Pennsylvania - and this time he doesn't even have to win. If he simply outperforms the latest RealClearPolitics Average which has him trailing by 5.9%, that will be enough to calm nervous superdelegates while all but eliminating any hope Senator Clinton has of claiming a popular vote victory.

Senator Clinton has a much higher hurdle. With time running out and Democrats increasingly anxious to turn their fire on John McCain, a win by 2-4 points along the lines of New Hampshire and Texas will simply not get the job done. Hillary Clinton needs a double-digit win.

Clinton will undoubtedly stay in the race with a 6-9 point victory, but at that point her chances for the nomination will be reduced to hoping for an Obama scandal or major gaffe that causes Obama's campaign to implode. Not totally impossible. But, then again, not very likely either.

Where the race could get very interesting is if Clinton is able to beat Obama by double-digits. Something to keep in mind is Pennsylvania will be the first time Democratic voters, as opposed to pollsters, have had a chance to factor in some of the recent controversies surrounding Obama the last six weeks, in particular Reverend Wright and his "bitter" comments in San Francisco. A big win by Clinton may cause a reassessment of how damaging these issues might be to Obama. On the back of Senator Obama's dismal showing in the Ohio River Valley among working class whites, his performance in Pennsylvania among downscale white voters will take on heightened importance.

A Clinton victory over 10 points will allow two critical things for the Clinton campaign.

1) Given the likelihood that Obama will overwhelmingly carry black voters and young voters, a 10+ point Clinton win, will mean Obama performed terribly among blue-collar whites. This will exacerbate angst among undecided superdelegates, fully aware that the most reasonable Democratic pathways to 270 electoral votes include wins in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and New Jersey.

2) A double-digit win keeps Clinton in position to be able to ultimately claim a victory in the popular vote. And a win in the popular vote is critical to the Clinton campaign's ultimate strategy for the nomination, as it gives superdelegates the rationale (and more importantly the cover) to buck all the emotional investment in Obama as the nominee.

Here is a quick guide to sort through the inevitable post-PA spin.

--Obama wins: Race is totally over.

--Clinton wins by 5 or less: Race is effectively over.

--Clinton wins by 6-9: Status quo, which favors the front runner Obama, particularly as the clock winds down.

--Clinton wins by 10-13: Clinton remains the underdog, but her odds of being the nominee will be considerably higher than the conventional wisdom in the media.

--Clinton wins by 14+: Totally different race, as Clinton will be on a path to claim a popular vote win that will give her every bit as much of an argument as the legitimate "winner". In this scenario anything could ultimately happen, including neither Clinton nor Obama becoming the eventual nominee.

John McIntyre is the co-founder & President of RealClearPolitics. Email: john@realclearpolitics.com

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