Could Barack Obama “close the deal” on Super Tuesday?

When almost two dozen states are voting, the Democratic presidential campaigns of both Illinois Senator Obama and New York Senator Hilllary Clinton are prepared to spin things their way. That means that the best bet going into “Super Tuesday” is that it will be a wash, with both campaigns finding enough good news to carry on through the primaries and caucuses of February.

There is no way at this point that Clinton can win the day decisively. Obama had built too many firewalls in southern and western states.

But could Clinton lose the day? Possibly, and that’s what to watch for on Tuesday.

Let’s be clear that only something akin to a sweep would be enough to force the once-inevitable Clinton campaign to accept the new inevitability of Obama as the likely Democratic nominee and Clinton as also-ran. Patterns of early voting that favor Clinton argue against such a scenario. But Obama’s late surge in states across the country keeps the possibility open enough to be worthy of discussion.

What would a sweep look like? Obama would not have to win every state or every delegate, but he would have to dominate the map in a manner that left no doubt that Democratic primary and caucus voters prefer his candidacy to that of the woman who not long ago was busy outlining her Democratic National Convention acceptance speech.

To do this, Obama would has to begin by winning California convincingly. That’s possible. He’s moved even or ahead most Golden State polls. Clinton is drawing huge crowds and working the state aggressively; and Obama’s decision to focus most of his campaigning elsewhere in the final days is risky. But if Obama gets California and reaps the benefits of the broader focus, he is on his way to the kind of day that could transform American politics.

Obama then must come close to Clinton in her adopted home state of New York. To do that, he needs to carry New York City and do well enough statewide to pull at least 40 percent of the vote and roughly that percentage of the state’s delegates. This seems possible, although the Clinton camp is working hard — and smart — to keep the New York senator’s vote up in the city. The key may be the borough of Brooklyn, where the Clinton campaign is targeting women from the Caribbean — a very large and engaged voting bloc that they hope to keep with Hillary.

Next comes Illinois, Obama’s home state. He needs to win with over 70 percent to keep Clinton’s take of delegates from congressional districts in the suburbs and downstate from being worthy of note.

Once the touchstone states are out of the way, we move to the difficult-but-not-unimaginable part: Obama must carry either New Jersey or Connecticut, states adjacent to New York that had been seen as safe Clinton turf until recently. New Jersey seems the more likely prospect. Most polls from the Garden State show him catching up with Clinton — with some putting them even as of this morning. Late appearances could be key here, as Obama needs a maximum excitement factor to motivate new voters to get to the polls. Much attention has been paid to the fact that Newark Mayor Cory Booker is backing Obama, but that’s less important than the south Jersey vote in cities such as Camden, where turnout must be large and maximized for the Illinois senator.

Also in the northeast, Obama needs to win Massachusetts. That would have been unimaginable not long ago, but with the Kennedy family pulling for him is such a high-profile manner, it is now required. Polling from the state is scant but all indications are the Obama is gaining, especially in the Boston suburbs that had been Clinton country.

In the south, Obama should take Georgia and Alabama, states with large African-American voter blocs. The exit of John Edwards — who was splitting the southern white vote with Clinton — complicates things a bit. But if Obama does not take Georgia and Alabama, he’s got no claim to a sweep.

Clinton will get Arkansas — her virtual home state, by virtue of her status as the wife of the former governor; and neighboring Tennessee and Oklahoma look good for her. Obama should get delegates in all three, however. (He is helped in Oklahoma by the late endorsement of the Transport Workers Union, a big player in New York City politics that also happens to be the biggest union in the Sooner State.)

Count Kansas for Obama — it’s his virtual home state, by virtue of his mother’s roots there. Obama should also take Colorado, where he opened his campaign offices last fall, and Idaho, where 14,000 people turned out Saturday to hear him declare, “They told me there weren’t any Democrats in Idaho – that’s what they told me. But I didn’t believe them.” Give him Alaska as well; caucus voters in the most northerly state tend to go left and insurgent.

The same hold true for the caucus goers in Minnesota, where Obama’s Saturday appearance in Minnesota drew a huge crowd.

Obama is also looking strong in North Dakota, where popular Senator Kent Conrad is solidly behind his colleague from Illinois.

That leaves three key battlegrounds, in addition to New Jersey:

* Missouri, where Clinton has some neighbor-state advantages but Obama has Senator Claire McCaskill and large, well-organized African-American communities in Kansas City and St. Louis. Obama’s moving up fast; at least one poll now has him even with Clinton.

* Arizona, with a large Hispanic population and a white population that trends older, should be solid Clinton country. Obama has moved up here. If he wins, it would be a huge coup and go a long way toward making him the clear winner on Super Tuesday.

* New Mexico would be an even bigger coup for Obama, and he is fighting hard for it. His Santa Fe rally last week was huge. If very-popular Governor Bill Richardson were to endorse Obama at the last minute, that might tip things the senator’s way. But Bill Clinton is seeking to head that eventuality off; the former president’s keeping such a close eye on Richardson that he watched the Super Bowl with the governor.

There are a few other small-state primaries and caucuses in Utah, Delaware, America Samoa. They all look to be toss-ups. If Obama wins any or all of them, the case for awarding him the day increases marginally. If Clinton wins them, they’ll give her a small measure of redemption — unless the races for delegates and bragging rights are close. And if those races are close, then there is no Obama sweep in the offering.

What does this all add up to? An Obama sweep is imaginable, and the Clinton people know it. Obama will survive Super Tuesday; at worst, he meets the expectations of the weekend. Clinton and her aides understand that Tuesday will be her make-or-break day, which explains the edge in her closing comments regarding the campaign.

To recap: Obama should win California and Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota and North Dakota. Then, out of the northeast, he needs another state, preferably New Jersey. Out of the middle of the country, he needs Missouri. Out of the southwest, he needs Arizona. If he gets these, and if the delegate distribution plays right, he can claim to have dominated the day. If he adds New Mexico in the southwest and Connecticut in the northeast, and perhaps a surprise — like Tennessee or Oklahoma — he’ll no longer be merely claiming a sweep. He’ll have it, and a clear road to the nomination.