With endorsements coming in from California, Iowa and Indiana, Sen. Barack Obama yesterday pulled even with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the race for support on Capitol Hill, as Democratic lawmakers shrugged off his recent struggles.
Obama (Ill.) received the backing of Rep. Baron P. Hill, a conservative from a critical district in southern Indiana; Rep. Bruce Braley, an Iowa freshman who grabbed a Republican seat in 2006; and Rep. Lois Capps, who has held her liberal Santa Barbara, Calif., seat for five full terms and whose son-in-law works for the Obama campaign.
A congressional contest that Clinton once dominated is now knotted at 97, and the senator from New York continues to lose ground with the one group that can still deliver her the nomination -- the party leaders and elected officials known as superdelegates.
For the Clinton campaign, the reemergence of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., soon after Obama's comments about "bitter" small-town voters, was supposed to be the moment when superdelegates decided Obama could not be elected president. Instead, he has won more superdelegate endorsements than Clinton in recent days, whittling her once-overwhelming lead down to about 20.
At an hour-long Obama campaign stop that focused on jobs and health care yesterday at a factory in Indianapolis, no voters asked about Wright. And the candidate told the workers that an Indiana win for him could end the long Democratic nomination fight.
"If we win Indiana, we've got this nomination," Obama said. "We will win the general election, then we can roll up our sleeves and start changing the country."
On Monday, Obama took the endorsement lead among his Democratic Senate colleagues when Sen. Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) announced his support. Obama then pulled even overall after four House nods in two days, with even some rural lawmakers in tough, Republican-leaning districts giving him the benefit of the doubt. Swing-district lawmakers said they are no longer as certain as they once were that Obama would be less divisive than Clinton and attract the support of independents and Republicans in November -- but between the two, he appears to still be the better option.
"I am pleased that Senator Obama clearly and unequivocally denounced Reverend Wright's remarks," Hill said in a statement yesterday. "Hoosiers don't feel that way about our country, I don't feel that way about our country and Senator Obama made it abundantly clear that he doesn't feel that way either."
For elected superdelegates such as Hill, taking a public stand holds considerable political risk. The National Republican Congressional Committee, which hopes to take Hill's always-contested seat in November, quickly attacked him for backing a candidate "who recently claimed that people 'cling' to their religion and the Second Amendment because they are 'bitter.' "
Rep. Zack Space (D-Ohio), who remains neutral, marveled that Hill -- who lost his seat in 2004 to Republican Michael E. Sodrel, won it back in 2006 and is likely to face a rematch with Sodrel in November -- came out for Obama. But he said he was even more amazed by Tuesday's endorsement of Obama by Rep. Ben Chandler (D-Ky.), whose district is likely to vote overwhelmingly for Clinton in the Kentucky Democratic primary May 20.
"That's courageous," he said.
Hill and other lawmakers made clear that Obama's recent efforts to put the "bitter" comments behind him and distance himself from his former pastor have satisfied them that he is the best candidate for the top of the Democratic ticket.
"Anybody who did not think Republicans would characterize either of our candidates somehow as deeply flawed has been living in another country, if not another planet," said Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), who remains undecided but believes Obama will be the nominee.
Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), an Obama supporter, said that at this point there are very few truly uncommitted lawmakers among the 92 who have not publicly endorsed, and he predicted that Obama would seal a majority of them by the final Democratic primaries on June 3.
Amid the positive signs for Obama was one worrisome development: a new television ad by Mississippi congressional candidate Travis Childers, a Democrat, that tries to create distance between Childers and his party's potential nominee. Childers's GOP opponent, Greg Davis, linked him to "liberal Barack Obama" in a previous ad that places Childers's face next to Wright's. The narrator says, "When Obama's pastor cursed America, blaming us for 9/11, Childers said nothing."
The new Childers ad denounces "lies and attacks linking me to politicians I don't know and have never even met."
Braley, the Iowa freshman, said he had already concluded that Obama holds "potential as a leading national figure" because of the "energy and enthusiasm" that he has generated among voters. But he said he was further reassured by the way Obama handled the Wright issue, which erupted again over the weekend.
"He made it very clear where he stands," Braley said.
Staff writer Perry Bacon Jr., traveling with Clinton, contributed to this report.