By CHARLES BABINGTON and CALVIN WOODWARD
Associated Press Writers
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Hillary Rodham Clinton had every reason to expect a big victory Tuesday in the West Virginia Democratic primary as her campaign tried to use the contest to raise doubts about front-runner Barack Obama's electability in the fall.
Obama, only weeks away from clinching the nomination, has already turned his focus in tone and itinerary to Republican John McCain almost to the exclusion of his fading Democratic rival. He planned to spend primary night in Missouri, a bellwether in the general election.
The New York senator campaigned, though, like it mattered and polls showed her with a commanding lead in the Mountain State, as well as an advantage in Kentucky a week later.
"I think Democrats across the country tomorrow will be asking themselves why Senator Obama - with all of his money, with all of the great press, with voters being told he was the inevitable nominee - why did Senator Obama lose West Virginia by 15 points or so? What does it say about his candidacy at this date that he can't beat Senator Clinton in a key swing state?" Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson told NBC's "Today" Tuesday.
But the coalescing of party leaders around Obama continued Tuesday, as two more superdelegates - New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Rep. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, a state Clinton narrowly won - endorsed the Illinois senator.
"Senator Obama represents a new generation of leadership, one that can help heal the divisions of the past and unify this country so that together we can build a stronger future," Nagin said in a statement.
Interest is keen in the West Virginia primary, judging by a record turnout of more than 70,000 people who cast ballots in person before Tuesday in the state's liberal early voting system.
Clinton implored West Virginians in four stops Monday to send her forward with a convincing win.
"This may be the most important vote you've ever cast," she told a crowd in Fairmont. "Let's have a huge vote in West Virginia."
Obama made only one appearance in the state, talking up his love of country and conviction that veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars deserve better care from their government when they come home.
"At a time when we're facing the largest homecoming since the Second World War, the true test of our patriotism is whether we will serve our returning heroes as well as they've served us," he said.
For only the second time in many weeks, Obama wore an American flag pin on his suit jacket. He has said he stopped wearing such pins routinely because he felt they became a substitute for "true patriotism" after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
In every step now, he's mindful of the gathering struggle with McCain, a veteran both of politics and war who will exploit Obama's short national resume as surely as Clinton has tried to do.
Obama is mounting a two-week tour that will take him to the remaining primary states but concentrate on fall battlegrounds including Florida and Michigan.
Clinton won both states, although Obama had his name removed from Michigan's ballot, and no delegates were awarded. Restoring the delegates is a major part of Clinton's long-shot strategy for the nomination.
Clinton's last best hope is to use strong showings in West Virginia and Kentucky to make the case that Obama is weak among key Democratic constituents.
They are, most prominently, blue-collar, white voters, an abundant proportion of the electorate in West Virginia and a leading reason why Clinton ran strong in the state.
A strong Clinton victory would not materially change Obama's prospects nationally. But it would lay bare the racial divisions and other polarizing aspects of the protracted and often bitter Democratic contest.
Increasing numbers of Democratic primary voters have become entrenched behind their candidate and said they would not support the other candidate in the fall - a rift the party is eager to start healing.
To that end, the party leaders known as superdelegates have been moving to Obama's side, more than two dozen of them in the week since he routed Clinton in North Carolina and narrowly lost Indians.
At that pace, he would reach the number of delegates needed to clinch the nomination - 2,025 - in three weeks, when delegates from the remaining primaries are included.
West Virginia had 28 delegates at stake Tuesday.
Calvin Woodward reported from Washington.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)