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Bounce from S.C. critical

As we look toward 24 Super Tuesday nominating contests, with 1,688 pledged delegates at stake, out of the 4,049 who will decide the nomination at the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama appears to be leading only in his home state of Illinois. Therefore, the key political question of the week is this: How big a bounce will Obama get from his resounding South Carolina victory?

The bounce is so critical because the everyday tools of campaigning — ads, visits and organization — will be insufficient on their own to alter the dynamic. None of the states yet to hold contests will see anything like the time and money that were devoted to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Obama and Hillary Clinton spent nearly $10 million each on ads alone in Iowa. The Obama campaign just announced it will be spending $3.5 million on ads in all the Feb. 5 states combined.

What does it take to have a real impact in these states? Former State Treasurer Phil Angelides spent $47 million losing the California gubernatorial race to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Ken Salazar (D) spent nearly $10 million to win his open Senate seat in Colorado, while Sen. Tom Coburn (R) spent $5 million to take his open Oklahoma seat.

Misleading comparisons, you say? In many ways they are, but these figures do provide some gauge of the money required to win these states using traditional campaign tools, and the presidential candidates simply cannot buy the level of advertising and organization they need to win. Instead, they will rely mostly on the visibility afforded by press coverage, the word of mouth they engender among voters, volunteer efforts and the contagion effects emanating from earlier contests.

As a result, the “bounce” continues to play a central role. Though he lost New Hampshire, Obama did benefit there from an Iowa bounce. In the New Hampshire polls before Iowa, Obama garnered an average of 27 percent; after Iowa he averaged 37 percent, exactly the vote he received primary night.

National surveys reflected a similar Iowa bounce as Obama jumped nearly 10 points after the caucuses. Against a weaker field, John Kerry benefited from a larger 20-point Iowa bounce in the national polls, adding 13 more points by winning New Hampshire, a feat Obama did not repeat.

The split results from the two earliest contests left Obama doing better across the country, but not well enough to overtake Hillary Clinton. So now we are left to speculate about the impact of a South Carolina bounce. With 50-80 percent of the press coverage of the entire primary process coming out of Iowa and New Hampshire in past cycles, it is unclear whether South Carolina will provide the requisite lift.

However, there are signs this cycle may be different. First, the size and scope of Obama’s victory has evoked more than the usual level of commentary. Moreover, Obama’s campaign has found ways to extend the victory, dominating the press coverage in the days after South Carolina. By securing endorsements from Caroline and Ted Kennedy, the campaign turned a one-day press story into at least a three-day celebration.

We will have to wait a week to find out just how high Obama will bounce, but at this stage, the race is not just about winning states, it is about securing delegates. Whatever the state-by-state win/loss stats on Super Tuesday, both candidates will likely pick up enough delegates to keep the score pretty close on this decisive dimension. As a result, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama could be locked in a long struggle for delegates, with the outcome in doubt for weeks, if not months, and with every state playing an important role.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.