Page last updated at 05:19 GMT, Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Democrats head for Denver showdown

By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, Mississippi

In a state where the mighty Mississippi slides slowly and uneventfully through the Deep South on its inexorable way to the ocean, the Democratic primary process did something a little similar this week.

Barack Obama meets voters in Pennsylvania, 11 March 2008
Barack Obama's win in Mississippi gives him a boost but not a victory

The Obama and Clinton camps passed through Mississippi on their own inevitable journey to what now seems an unavoidable showdown at their party's convention in Denver in August.

Rallies were held, speeches were given and town hall style meetings were conducted but there was never a sense that proceedings here in the Magnolia State would be decisive.

That's a pity, in a way - nominations for the presidency are normally sorted out long before we reach this point in the electoral calendar, and Democratic political activists here threw themselves into the race with huge energy.

In part, of course, the lack of drama is simple enough to explain - Mississippi is very small - there were only 33 pledged delegates up for grabs here out of the 2,025 overall that the successful candidate will need to win the nomination.

You can draw your own conclusions from the fact that neither of the two candidates was in Mississippi when the results began to emerge soon after the polls closed.

Nasty tone

Hillary Clinton did her best to undermine Mr Obama's latest win as she left the Magnolia State for next month's battleground of Pennsylvania, implying that she'd never expected to win anyway.

Hillary Clinton campaigns in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 11 March 2008
Hillary Clinton implied she had never expected to win in Mississippi

"Some people," she explained, "have said 'Well Mississippi is very much a state that will most likely be in favour of Senator Obama.' I said 'Well, that's fine', but I want people in Mississippi to know I'm for you."

Mr Obama was in his home base of Chicago as election officials in Jackson compiled the Mississippi results, but he was quick to point out that this was another state which had supported what he portrays as a kind of crusade for change in the way politics is transacted in Washington.

Asked about the occasionally nasty tone of the contest these days, Mr Obama demonstrated that he too is getting better at getting in a little dig, as he gets his point across.

"We've been very measured in terms of how we talk about Senator Clinton... I've been careful to say that I think Senator Clinton is a capable person. I'm not sure we've been getting that same approach from the Clinton campaign."

Negative perceptions

A careful sifting of the detailed evidence from Mississippi, by the way, provides plenty of material to fuel the secret anxieties of both candidates.

Mr Obama has to be a candidate who happens to be black, rather than a black candidate

Mr Obama, for example, won more than 90% of black votes, but only about a quarter of white voters supported him.

If he is to win nationwide, let alone eventually win the White House, he has got to keep proving that he is good at winning white votes too.

Mr Obama has to be a candidate who happens to be black, rather than a black candidate.

For Mrs Clinton, there is the news in one exit poll that only slightly more than half of voters regard her as honest and trustworthy - an area in which she trails Mr Obama by miles.

It seems reasonable to assume that those negative perceptions among her own party's voters are shared by the kind of independents she would need to attract if she were to end up fighting Republican John McCain for the White House.

Backroom horse-trading

It is not surprising that there is an increasing edge to the race these days - the Democratic system of sharing out the delegates in each state according to the proportion of primary votes won by each candidate means that decisive victories are frustratingly difficult to achieve.

Delegates won on 11 March: 17
Total states won: 26

Delegates won on 11 March: 11
Total states won: 16

Delegates needed to secure nomination: 2,025.
Source: AP at 0530 GMT 12 March

We've never had a race between two equally popular front-runners before, and it is for that reason that we can predict with growing confidence that the contest will go on beyond the last primary to the August convention in Denver, and give us a taste of the old backroom horse-trading that the primary system was designed to replace.

So the two campaigns are roaming from state to state acquiring delegates, although it is not likely that either side will reach the magic 2,025 mark before the end of the race.

Intriguingly, we can already see what form the debate between the two campaigns will take in August.

The Obama camp will argue that he has won more states, more votes (at the moment) and has more delegates than Hillary Clinton.

Clinton and Obama supporters hold signs in Texas, 4 March 2008
Mrs Clinton can claim she has won the big states like Texas

She will argue that she has won the big states (California, Texas, Ohio, New York and New Jersey) while he has won among Democrats in lots of small states (Hawaii), many of which will vote Republican in a general election anyway (Wyoming).

His camp will counter that he is good at winning new votes, while states like New York and California will vote for whoever ends up as the Democratic nominee.

It will be for the so-called super-delegates to choose between them - they are the elected representatives and party officials who effectively have a kind of casting vote at the convention.

They will be busy, but I bet you they make a little time to consider changing party rules to make the primary system itself a little clearer, and a little more decisive too.

Electoral College votes

Winning post 270
Obama - Democrat
McCain - Republican
Select from the list below to view state level results.

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