Clinton concedes Louisiana to her rival

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The Independent US

It would be dangerous to read too much into the conversations being exchanged by passengers settled in the bench seats of the historic St Charles Avenue Street Car this sunny morning as it bumps and rattles past the parades of stately mansions. The conversation is politics and the man of their affections is Barack Obama.

An unbiased group of folks, this is not. All of us have hitched a ride on the tram back to Canal Street in downtown New Orleans from an Obama rally in the nearby Garden District. There are few undecideds on board – and even some passengers who are not even residents of Louisiana, but not many.

In any normal year, the primary contests would by now have become more or less superfluous because both parties would have settled on their nominees to fight for the presidency in November. While the Republicans may have got there with John McCain, the Democrats are hardly so lucky. Mr Obama and Hillary Clinton are neck-and-neck, scrambling for nominating delegates wherever they can find them.

And so it is that the four states holding primary or caucus votes this weekend suddenly find themselves the focus of unfamiliar national attention. Louisiana, Nebraska and Washington State vote today, while Maine will hold caucuses tomorrow. Add to the mix the US Virgin Islands and you hardly have a weekend on the scale of Super Tuesday but, nonetheless, 161 delegates will be chosen.

For residents of New Orleans, the plunge into the political spotlight is energising. "This is a struggle for every delegate," said Pearson Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. "We have not been down this road in a long time. It is just crazy."

Buoyed by his success in fending off any significant comeback by Mrs Clinton on Tuesday, Senator Obama has barely eased up in his campaign schedule, visiting here, Omaha, Nebraska and Seattle in Washington in quick succession.

Mrs Clinton has skipped campaigning in Louisiana. Even ignoring the enthusiasm for him on the street car, it looks like this state, with a large African-American population, is Mr Obama's to lose. The former president Bill Clinton was in the state yesterday, however, packing in several appearances in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and other cities up and down the state.

Privately, the Obama campaign is expressing confidence that the days ahead will help him close the small delegate gap with Mrs Clinton, and possibly overtake her. She looks stronger than him, possibly, in Maine, but weaker in the other states. And on Tuesday, he expects to fare well in contests in Virginia, Maryland and also Washington DC, where the delegate trove is larger.

The Illinois senator, meanwhile, accepted a challenge made this week by Mrs Clinton for more televised debates between the two of them. The first is likely to take place in Cleveland, Ohio, on 26 February. Ohio and Texas vote on 4 March, a date that both campaigns consider critical to break the deadlock between them.

Back on the street car, Gerald Verdine, 68, who lives in California and has already cast his primary vote – for Senator Obama – said he likes the Illinois senator because he is motivating young people. What will happen in the end? "I think it is going to be a package deal between him and Hillary," he says.