BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- Campaigning for his wife ahead of next month's primary in this state, Bill Clinton was hardly subtle.
"I want you to run up her vote here in Pennsylvania," he told hundreds of supporters last week at the Hotel Bethlehem, some of whom waited hours in the rain to see him.
Barack Obama leads in the delegate count, and his campaign continues to emphasize piling up delegates, but Hillary Clinton is attempting to create a new battleground in the presidential race: the popular-vote tally. It is the latest, and perhaps the last, hope for her to stop Obama, but the odds are stacked against her.
With an eye toward the superdelegates who will likely decide the nomination, the Clinton camp contends that the total popular vote in the primaries is key to deciding which Democrat can defeat Republican John McCain.
"If Hillary wins the popular vote but can't quite catch up in the delegate vote, then you have to ask yourself which is more important and who's more likely to win in November," Bill Clinton told an ABC television interviewer last weekend.
Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a Clinton backer, has said the popular vote count is more democratic, since a significant part of the delegate selection process is "undemocratic." He was referring to caucuses, in which Clinton has performed poorly against Obama's superior organization.
The Clinton arguments aim at Democratic superdelegates, since neither candidate can win enough delegates in the primaries to gain a majority. Enough superdelegates remain uncommitted to tip the matter either way.
Democratic strategist Steve Murphy said the Clinton campaign is "like a lawyer with a losing case. You file every motion imaginable and hope to hit pay dirt."
Obama appears to have weathered an uproar over his relationship with a controversial pastor. After delivering a highly publicized speech about race and winning New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's endorsement, he has edged back ahead of Clinton, according to a new Gallup national tracking poll released yesterday.
Obama has a mathematically insurmountable lead in delegates earned during the primary season, thanks to party rules that allot nearly as many delegates to the loser in a two-way contest. He also has a popular-vote lead of more than 700,000.
For Clinton to move ahead in popular votes, she would have to clobber him in the remaining primaries -- running up landslide margins that would signal to insiders that Obama's candidacy had effectively collapsed.
Pressing her new strategy last week, Bill Clinton told a Wilkes-Barre, Pa., crowd: "It's all come down to you. You can put her ahead in the popular vote. You can put her on the road to victory." Those words echoed his remark at a campaign event in Texas last month that caused more than a little discomfort for his wife's strategists.
The former president, playing a sometimes unwelcome role in setting the bar for his wife's performance, told a Texas audience: "If she wins Texas and Ohio I think she will be the nominee. If you don't deliver for her, I don't think she can be. It's all on you."
In the days leading up to the March 4 primaries, her strategists tried to wriggle out of that prediction, suggesting that Mrs. Clinton needed to win only one state to keep her candidacy alive; in the end, she swept both primaries (though Obama apparently picked up more delegates in the Texas caucuses).
Pennsylvania is the next must-win state for Clinton, but her husband has effectively set another bar that she may have more difficulty clearing: Unless she gains the overall edge in popular votes, he indicated, it would be hard for the party to deny Obama the nomination.
"If Senator Obama wins the popular vote, then the choice would be easier," Mr. Clinton said in the ABC interview.
Hillary Clinton responded curtly when asked last week whether the nomination race was a contest for delegates or popular votes. "I think it's a question about everything, and I think people are going to have to take everything into account," she said.
For months, the Obama camp has said the nomination fight is about winning delegates, though it has sought to focus attention on the number of states won, too.
"What's clear is that Senator Obama is winning in pledged delegates, states won, and the popular vote," said Tommy Vietor, an Obama campaign spokesman.
Clinton's popular-vote strategy was dealt a setback last week with the collapse of efforts to stage new primaries in Michigan and Florida. Without those states, it could be nearly impossible for her to gain the popular vote lead.
Clinton strategist Mark Penn estimates that as many as 7 million voters could participate in primaries left on the calendar. For Clinton to overtake Obama in popular votes, she'd need about 60 percent of the vote in those elections.