WASHINGTON - Hillary and Bill Clinton have been talking up the idea that Barack Obama, whom they have called too inexperienced to be president, would make a strong running mate on a ticket headed by the New York senator.
Campaigning in Mississippi over the weekend, the former president was quoted as saying his wife and Obama could form "an almost unstoppable force."
After winning the Democratic primaries in Ohio, Texas, and Rhode Island last week, Senator Clinton suggested that she and Obama might end up on the same ticket, with her at the top of it.
Obama won the Wyoming caucuses Saturday, and the latest polls show him leading in tomorrow's primary in Mississippi. He is ahead of Clinton in pledged delegates, but neither candidate is expected to obtain the 2,025 needed for the nomination in the remaining state contests.
As of last night, Obama had 1,578 delegates and Clinton had 1,468. Democratic leaders worry about the damage that could be done if neither Clinton nor Obama has a clear lead by the August nominating convention.
In hailing Obama as a possible vice president, the Clintons are reaching out to him and, perhaps more important, to his backers, whose support she would need to defeat John McCain in the November election.
"The Clintons are in a difficult position," said Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University in Iowa, who has tracked the presidential race.
"If she wins the Democratic presidential nomination, she would need Obama's supporters. But she needs to be careful. If this talk of him on the ticket is seen as a cynical maneuver, it could backfire and hurt her," Goldford said.
The Clintons have charged that the charismatic senator from Illinois lacks the experience to handle an international crisis as president. But since Clinton won the Ohio and Texas primaries, she and her husband have repeatedly touted Obama as a possible running mate.
When asked about the possibility last week, Obama said he was focused on winning the nomination.
"I think it is very premature to start talking about a joint ticket," he said.
Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, who has endorsed Obama, derided the Clintons' suggestion.
"The first threshold question about a vice president is, are you prepared to be president?" Kerry said yesterday on CBS's "Face the Nation."
"So on the one end, they are saying he's not prepared to be president. On the other hand, they're saying maybe he ought to be vice president," Kerry said.
Former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota also mocked the idea.
"It may be the first time in history that the person who is running number two would offer the person running number one the number two position," Daschle said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Governor Edward Rendell of Pennsylvania, a Democrat who has sought to rally support for Clinton in his state's April 22 primary, backed the idea of Clinton and Obama teaming up.
"It would be a great ticket," Rendell said yesterday on the NBC program.
Pennsylvania, the biggest remaining state in the race for the nomination, should be a safe win for Clinton, but analysts say there are pockets of vulnerability for Obama to exploit - and plenty of time to do it.
"If the election were held today it would probably be Senator Clinton by 10 points, but seven weeks in this crazy race, anything can happen," said Clay Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
A win in Pennsylvania could be crucial to Clinton's hopes of gaining support from "superdelegates" - elected officials and party insiders who can vote at the convention as they choose.
Mark Nevins, communications director for Clinton's campaign in Pennsylvania, said the state was "a proving ground."
"You can't really expect to win the general election if you can't win Pennsylvania," he said.
"Pennsylvania has more Catholics, more union members, more older voters, and fewer African-Americans," said Terry Madonna, politics professor at Franklin & Marshall College. "This is pretty much a Clinton state. It's hers to lose."
The demographics are similar to those of Ohio, which Clinton won by 54 percent to 44 percent. Madonna said Clinton also can play the "hometown" card because her father was born in Scranton.
Clinton will focus on healthcare and the economy to target the large population of seniors and union members, which is higher than the national average, Nevins said.
Sean Smith, a spokesman for Obama, contends that the demographics claimed as friendly by the Clinton campaign had helped Obama win Wisconsin and could do so again.
"We did extremely well in Wisconsin with the same types of voters," he said, pointing to older voters who were "absolutely open" to Obama's message of hope and change and "bringing the country together to solve our problems."
Richards of Quinnipiac said Obama must do three things to have a chance of winning: boost turnout among black voters, which is historically low in primaries; motivate students at the state's numerous universities and colleges; and win over affluent voters in the Philadelphia suburbs where Clinton is vulnerable.