WASHINGTON -- Barack Obama handily won two more states yesterday as he and Hillary Clinton shifted their focus to Tuesday's Mid-Atlantic primary.
Obama said he was hoping for victories that would give him momentum heading into Tuesday's contests in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. He got them in the Nebraska and Washington caucuses - by 2-1 margins - and was leading in the Louisiana primary, based on partial returns.
In Republican contests, Mike Huckabee swamped John McCain in the Kansas caucuses with support from social conservatives. The Louisiana primary was too close to call, based on early returns.
"Clearly, I am pleased by these results, but it is onward and upward to Virginia and Maryland as we head into the Potomac primaries on Tuesday," Huckabee said in a statement.
Last night, the Democratic contenders addressed a party fundraising dinner in Richmond, Va., and prepared for campaign stops in Maryland today and tomorrow.
Clinton focused her remarks largely on John McCain, the likely Republican nominee, and said Democrats don't need to worry that she'll be "knocked out" of the ring, if she's their candidate.
"I am ready to go toe to toe with Senator McCain whenever and wherever he desires," she said.
Clinton is to hold a rally in Bowie this evening after a daylong swing across Virginia, the state with the largest and most closely contested Feb. 12 primary. Tomorrow morning, she'll attend an event in White Marsh.
Obama scheduled rallies for tomorrow in Baltimore and College Park.
Huckabee, who campaigned yesterday in Maryland, said he won't end his bid unless McCain locks up the nomination. He refused to concede that the race is over and said voters in future primary and caucus states "deserve more than a coronation. They deserve an election."
Republican politicians have concluded that McCain has an insurmountable delegate advantage. But he isn't likely to win enough to lock up the nomination until next month at the earliest.
Maine holds Democratic caucuses today, and Clinton and Obama delivered last-minute appeals to party activists there before flying to Virginia.
Highlighting the tightness of the Democratic battle, the latest Associated Press tally of 1,681 delegates from last Tuesday's primaries showed a near split. Obama inched ahead, gaining a two-delegate lead, with 91 delegates to be determined.
Overall, Clinton had a 57-delegate advantage before yesterday's contests, thanks to an edge in support from party and elected officials who are automatic delegates to the convention. Obama has won more delegates in primaries and caucuses, and has been slowly erasing her lead.
That advantage is expected to shrink even more over the next few days and could even be reversed Tuesday if Obama sweeps the Potomac primaries. He's favored in all three, with Virginia expected to be the most closely competitive.
Maryland, with a large African-American population and concentrations of affluent liberals and college students, plays to strengths he has shown in other states.
Clinton is helped by party rules that allow only registered Democrats to vote, negating Obama's edge among independents. She is also drawing heavy primary support from women and working-class whites.
Polls show Obama with a double-digit lead in Maryland, a sharp reversal from last fall, when Clinton led by almost 20 percentage points.
Obama campaign officials are playing down his chances, hoping to keep expectations in check, pointing out that pre-election polling has been wildly inaccurate this year. Obama was favored to win New Hampshire and lost badly. In California, where at least one well-respected statewide survey showed a statistical tie, he lost by 10 points.
"We are fighting like a race where we're 10 points down, not 10 points ahead," Steve Hildebrand, a senior Obama strategist, said in a conference call.
The itineraries of the candidates and their top surrogates are road maps to their competing strategies and the battlegrounds on Feb. 12, when a larger number of delegates will be awarded to the winning candidate by congressional districts, rather than statewide.
Former President Bill Clinton planned four campaign stops today in Maryland, including services at a black church in Prince George's County, a Democratic club in Dundalk and one of the state's largest retirement communities, in Montgomery County.
Clinton and her husband will be trying to hold down Obama's margins among African-Americans, upscale suburban liberals and college students, while boosting her vote among working-class whites, seniors and older party activists.
Obama's Maryland events are designed to drive up enthusiasm among his core supporters, with arena-style rallies at the University of Maryland campus in College Park and in downtown Baltimore on election eve.