The Democratic candidates have already left Wisconsin, but in their wake is a contest that could be a telling barometer for who can best sustain attacks and come out on top.
Voters head to the polls in the state Tuesday, alongside caucus-goers in Hawaii, to weigh in on a race that in recent days has grown increasingly negative.
Barack Obama has been hit with charges of empty rhetoric and plagiarism, and Hillary Clinton has been hit with accusations of petty partisanship. And for the past week, they’ve been trading barbs via TV ads over their debate schedule.
Clinton looked to halt Obama’s winning streak, but a poor performance could raise big questions about her candidacy. A duo of wins would add to Obama’s eight straight victories and could give him vital momentum going into the March 4 primaries in Texas, Ohio and two other states.
Most polls favor Obama in Wisconsin, but one survey taken over the weekend by American Research Group showed Clinton ahead by 6 points. The same group completed another poll in the state Monday showing Obama ahead by 10.
In the Republican Party race, John McCain, the presumptive nominee, wants to show the party is rallying behind his candidacy. The Arizona senator picked up former President George H. W. Bush’s support, a critical blessing by a pillar of the Republican establishment.
McCain hoped to move closer to locking up the nomination in Republican primaries in Wisconsin and Washington state, where 56 delegates were at stake. The Arizona senator began the day with 908 delegates, while Mike Huckabee had 245.
Obama and Clinton criticized each other sharply as they looked to break out of a tight race, fearing the prospect that neither one will secure the nomination before the convention this summer in Denver.
The latest flap came when Obama was accused of lifting part of a speech from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick when the Illinois senator was speaking Saturday night in Milwaukee about the importance of eloquence and speeches.
Patrick said during his gubernatorial campaign a year and a half ago that words matter, like “I have a dream” and “all men are created equal.”
Obama used the same lines Saturday night. Obama said that Patrick suggested he use the lines to respond to Clinton’s suggestion that Obama is more of a talker than a doer.
Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson accused Obama of plagiarizing Patrick, but Obama said that was going too far.
“If your whole candidacy’s about words, they should be your own,” Clinton told reporters Monday.
Clinton’s staff tried to raise doubts about Obama’s credibility, pointing out that he has also hedged on a pledge to limit himself to public financing in the general election.
Obama shrugged off the criticism of his speeches, saying Clinton has used his lines, too.
Patrick is a close friend of Obama and has campaigned for him.
“I am neither surprised nor troubled that he used the words that I asked him to use of my own,” Patrick said in an interview Tuesday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “I think it’s a sad comment on the state of the race and the state of our politics that the Clinton campaign is taking this particular tact.”
Obama said Monday that he does not think it is “too big of a deal” that he borrowed lines from Patrick, although he probably should have given credit to his friend.
“Now hold on a second. Let’s see — I’ve written two books, wrote most of my speeches,” Obama told reporters at a news conference after touring a titanium plant.
“I’m happy to give Deval credit, as I give credit to a lot people for spurring all kinds of ideas,” he said. “But I think that it is fair to say that everything that we’ve been doing in generating excitement and the interest that people have in the election is based on the core belief in me that we need change in America.”
With so much at stake in the Democratic contest, turnout is predicted to be 35 percent, which would be the highest in 20 years. The forecast for election day was for bitterly cold temperatures in the single digits Fahrenheit.
Obama, born in Hawaii and living in Wisconsin’s southern neighbor, hoped to increase his lead over Clinton in the crucial hunt for delegates. Clinton’s campaign played down her chances in Wisconsin, but was hoping to beat expectations to give new life to her struggling campaign to become the first woman U.S. president. Obama is trying to become the country’s first black president.
They entered Tuesday’s contests closely divided in the hunt for the 2,025 delegates needed for the nomination: 1,281 for Obama and 1,218 for Clinton.
The day’s biggest prize was Wisconsin, where 74 delegates were up for grabs and polls showed the two in a statistical dead heat. Neither candidate made the long trip to campaign in Hawaii, where 20 delegates were to be decided by a caucus.
Clinton’s campaign has focused on March 4 contests in Ohio and Texas as the next major opportunity to revive her hopes of becoming the first woman president.
The state’s demographics should be tailor-made for Clinton — with high proportions of white working-class voters, and lower than average numbers of blacks, younger voters and liberal Democrats who have been Obama’s strongest supporters.
With working-class voters in the industrial Midwest up for grabs, both candidates focused their barbs on economic issues. Clinton’s campaign sent a mailer to Wisconsin voters saying Obama’s health care plan would leave 15 million uninsured, while Obama blamed Clinton’s “hollering at Republicans and engaging in petty partisan politics” for the failure of the health care initiative she spearheaded in her husband’s administration.
At campaign stops in Wisconsin, the New York senator and former first lady said voters have a choice between “speeches or solutions.”
Obama hit back Monday in Youngstown, Ohio, turning Clinton’s criticism of his oratory into a biting critique of her past support of trade deals, including the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.
“She says speeches don’t put food on the table. You know what? NAFTA didn’t put food on the table, either,” Obama said, bringing the crowd to its feet.
While Obama spent most of the last week in Wisconsin, Clinton split her time there and in Ohio and Texas.
But she invested in television ads in Wisconsin that criticized Obama for refusing to debate her in the state.
He aired a response ad accusing her of “the same old politics” of phony attacks, noting the 18 debates they have already had and two more later this week and next.
On the Republican side, the elder Bush’s endorsement offered a further nudge by Republican chieftains for conservatives to overcome their differences with McCain and back him if the party hopes to defeat either Obama or Clinton in the Nov. 4 general election.
In Houston, the former president called criticism by the party’s right flank that McCain is not conservative enough “grossly unfair,” arguing that he has a “sound conservative record.”
McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner-of-war, has struggled to win over conservatives who have been wary of the Arizona senator because of his reputation for bucking the party on several high-profile issues such as immigration and campaign finance reform.
But Huckabee, campaigning in Wisconsin, urged conservatives to shake up the Republican race by helping him defeat McCain in Tuesday’s primary.
“Tomorrow, give the conservatives not only of Wisconsin but also of America a chance to be heard,” he said.
Huckabee has refused to drop out of the race until McCain secures the 1,191 delegates needed to secure the party’s nomination at its convention this summer in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
In Hawaii, Democratic Party officials predict heavy turnout at 68 caucus sites statewide, from rural farm houses to urban high schools. Officials have ordered extra ballots as a precaution, and some worry that even those may not be enough for everyone.
The Democrats are also holding a primary in Washington state, but it has little significance since the state’s delegates were divided up on the basis of caucuses won by Obama earlier this month.
FOX News’ Aaron Bruns and The Associated Press contributed to this report.