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Clinton focuses on West Virginia; Obama, on future

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: Voting under way in West Virginia primary
  • Clinton is ahead by an average of 40 points in West Virginia polls
  • Obama acknowledges he will not win in West Virginia
  • CNN analyst: Big Clinton win could send sobering message to Obama Democrats
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By Paul Steinhauser
CNN Deputy Political Director
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The outcome of West Virginia's primary Tuesday may best be foretold by where Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama plan to spend the day.

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West Virginia appears to be a perfect demographic fit for Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Clinton is expected to be in Charleston, West Virginia, to celebrate what should be her large victory.

Obama has no plans Tuesday night, but he is spending the late afternoon at a campaign event in Missouri. That state has already voted this primary season but is considered a swing state that Democrats and Republicans have in their sights this November.

Clinton, it seems, is concentrating on the present; Obama is looking to the future.

Polling places in West Virginia opened at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Clinton, from New York, is ahead in West Virginia by an average of 40 points in the most recent public opinion polls.

The small state, with a large population of older voters and blue-collar workers, a dearth of upscale voters and a tiny African-American population, appears to be a perfect demographic fit for Clinton.

But even a landslide victory in West Virginia, which has 28 delegates, may be too little too late to keep Clinton realistically in the hunt for the Democratic presidential nomination. She trails Obama, from Illinois, in delegates won, states won and the popular vote so far this primary season. Clinton also now trails Obama when it comes to the support of superdelegates, and her campaign is $20 million in the red.

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Clinton said she's fighting on, telling a West Virginia crowd Sunday that "I guess my favorite message was from a woman named Angela. 'Keep strong,' she said, 'it's not over until the lady in the pantsuit says it is.' "

Like elsewhere in the country, the West Virginia voters are dealing with tough economic times. And that's not lost on Clinton, who is touting her plan, which was first proposed by presumed Republican nominee Sen. John McCain, to repeal the federal gas tax this summer.

"I want to give you a gas tax holiday this summer and I want the oil companies to pay the gas tax out of their record profits," Clinton told West Virginia voters Monday. "Now you may have heard something about this on the news because it's controversial. My opponent, Sen. Obama, says, 'Oh no, that's just a gimmick, that's not going to help people.'

"Well, I gotta tell you, according to the Department of Energy, it will help you [save] $70 this summer, and if you're a truck driver or you commute long distances, it'll help you even more."

But tough talk like that seems to be the exception. Since last Tuesday, when she squeaked out a victory in Indiana but lost by double digits in North Carolina, Clinton appears to have toned down her rhetoric when talking about her rival.

As the long odds to winning the nomination get longer, one thing Clinton continues to do is tout her electability, saying she's the stronger Democratic candidate to go up against Arizonan McCain in November.

"I'm winning Catholic voters and Hispanic voters and blue-collar workers and seniors, the kind of people that Sen. McCain will be fighting for in the general election. Now some call you swing voters, I call you Americans -- and I call you hard-working West Virginians who are trying to figure out what is best for you and your families," Clinton said.

"A big Clinton win will send a powerful message that there are a lot of Democrats not yet ready to get on board with Obama," said Bill Schneider, CNN senior political analyst. He added that a large Clinton victory in West Virginia "could send a sobering message to the Obama Democrats."Video Watch analysts predict what comes after West Virginia »

Clinton is also using electoral history to maker her case. "I think it's fair to say that West Virginia is a test. It's a test for me and it's a test for Sen. Obama, because for too long we have let places like West Virginia slip out of the Democratic column. And you know it is a fact that no Democratic president has ever won the White House since 1916 without winning West Virginia. That's how important the voters of West Virginia are," Clinton said. Video Watch CNN's John King plot out the West Virginia possibilities »

Bill Clinton won West Virginia in 1992 and 1996. George W. Bush took the state in 2000 and 2004.

"West Virginia used to be solidly Democratic, until 2000, when George W. Bush surprised everyone by winning the state. How did he do it? Social issues -- abortion, gays, and most important, guns -- in a state where more than 70 percent of the voters own a gun," Schneider said.

Obama acknowledges he will not win in West Virginia. Monday's single campaign event in West Virginia was his only campaign stop in the state in recent weeks.

He told the audience gathered at the Charleston Civic Center that "I'm extraordinarily honored that some of you will support me, and I understand that many more here in West Virginia will probably support Sen. Clinton." Video Watch Obama acknowledge Clinton's likely victory »

That was one of Obama's rare mentions of Clinton in his speeches since last Tuesday's primaries. About the only time he uttered the name Clinton this past week was when reporters or voters asked him specifically about her. While he's not taking the nomination for granted, the person who now appears to be in Obama's sights is McCain.

"I have great respect for John McCain's service to this country. I know he loves it dearly and honors those who serve. But John McCain is one of the few senators of either party who oppose this bill [21st Century GI Bill] because he thinks it's too generous. He thinks it's too generous. I could not disagree with him more," Obama told the audience in Charleston.

Obama touted his support of that GI bill, saying the legislation would provide returning veterans with a "real chance to afford a college education."

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That's a message that plays well in West Virginia. The state has more than its fair share of veterans, and West Virginians are sympathetic to those who serve in uniform.

After West Virginia, the campaign trail moves to Kentucky and Oregon, which vote in one week. Clinton is expected to do well in Kentucky, while Obama is the favorite to win Oregon.

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