YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Texas and Ohio: Two states, two debates, one chance for Hillary Rodham Clinton to save her moribund candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The former first lady suffered another bruising night Tuesday, badly losing the Wisconsin primary and the Hawaii caucuses to Barack Obama. The Illinois senator has now crushed Clinton in 10 straight contests, amassing a growing delegate lead and building support among women and white working class voters who have long formed the core of Clinton's candidacy.
Clinton aides have tried gamely for weeks to downplay her chances in Wisconsin and shift focus to Ohio and Texas, two large, delegate-rich states holding primaries March 4. Texas offers a large population of Hispanic voters who have so far rallied to her candidacy, while Ohio is home to millions of blue collar Democrats her strategists believe are receptive to her populist economic pitch.
The New York senator is also banking on a strong showing in two nationally televised debates, hoping to remind voters of her detailed mastery of issues.
But Democratic strategist Garry South said Clinton's hope for a Texas and Ohio comeback has dwindled with each Obama victory.
"Hillary Clinton is honestly hanging by a thread. You can't just keep cherry picking states," South said. "Momentum is overused more than any other word in campaigns, but there is a momentum factor. And at the moment she doesn't have it."
Clinton's top advisers in Ohio and Texas nonetheless gave an upbeat assessment Tuesday, telling reporters the outcome in Wisconsin would have little bearing on her chances in the two states.
"Texas is one of those great independent states," state director Ace Smith said, while Ohio director Robby Mook added, "I don't think Ohio voters are worried about the horse race."
But strategists say a win or even a close showing in Wisconsin could have been a game changer for Clinton _ a chance to slow Obama's momentum in a place that seemed tailor-made to her strengths. While the state is home to many of the college-educated Democrats who have typically favored Obama, it also has a large population of elderly and blue collar voters who have formed the core of Clinton's base.
Exit polls in the state indicate that base is eroding, with Obama making significant inroads among less educated voters, whites and women while maintaining strength among younger, better educated voters and blacks. Only elderly white voters stuck with Clinton.
Obama spent most of last week in Wisconsin, generating days of TV news and front page headlines. He also advertised heavily there on television.
Clinton stayed away until Saturday but ran her first negative television ads in the state, ripping the Illinois senator for refusing to debate her there.
"The notion that your Democratic voters in Wisconsin, a big Midwestern state, are so different than they are in Ohio, another big Midwestern state, that you can ignore one and win big in the other is a really strange strategy," South said.
While polls in Ohio and Texas currently appear favorable to Clinton, Obama benefits from a two-week lag time until voters in both states go to the polls. He has ample time and money to chip away at her lead, especially in Ohio where he has attacked Clinton for her past support of trade deals like NAFTA that have disproportionally hurt working class voters. Clinton has become a NAFTA critic even though she has previously helped champion the measure as a product of her husband's presidency.
EDITOR'S NOTE _ Beth Fouhy covers presidential politics for The Associated Press.