By John Whitesides, Political Correspondent
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Barack Obama will take a major steptoward the Democratic presidential nomination when Oregon andKentucky vote on Tuesday, but rival Hillary Clinton still hopesto spoil the party.
After Tuesday's results, Obama will be able to claim amajority of pledged delegates won in the lengthy state-by-statefight with Clinton.
It is a landmark he hopes will signal the beginning of theend of their gruelling race to contest November's presidentialelection against Republican John McCain.
Voting ends in Kentucky at 7 p.m. EDT (12:00 a.m. Britishtime on Wednesday) and Oregon's mail balloting will end at 8p.m. PDT/11 p.m. EDT (4:00 a.m. British time on Wednesday).Results are expected shortly after.
While Obama, an Illinois senator, could still be about 50to 75 delegates short of the 2,026 needed to win the nominationat the Democratic convention in August, he hopes the mark willsend more undecided superdelegates -- party officials who canback any candidate -- flooding his way.
"A clear majority of elected delegates will send anunmistakable message -- the people have spoken and they areready for change," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said inan e-mail message to supporters.
'NOT SO FAST'
But a newly formed women's political action committee,WomenCount, took out a full page advertisement in Tuesday's NewYork Times to encourage Clinton, a New York senator, to stay inthe race.
"Not so fast," it said. "Hillary's voice is our voice, andshe's speaking for us."
Clinton, who has ignored Obama's almost unassailable leadin delegates for weeks and shrugged off calls to quit the racebefore the last of the primary elections on June 3, was unfazedby the approaching milestone.
"There is no way that this is going to end any time soonbecause we're going to keep fighting for the nomination," shetold a rally on Monday in Prestonsburg, Kentucky, one of fiveevents on a long last day of campaigning in the state.
She said superdelegates should reconsider the race becauseshe would be a stronger foe for McCain, an Arizona senator. Hervictories in big states like Pennsylvania and Ohio gave her abroader base of support than Obama, she said.
"There has been a lot of analysis about which of us isstronger to win against Senator McCain, and I believe I am thestronger candidate," Clinton said, pointing to an evaluation byPresident George W. Bush's former chief political strategist,Karl Rove, to back up her case.
Geraldine Ferraro, a New York Democrat who in 1984 becamethe country's first woman vice presidential candidate of amajor party, said on NBC's "Today" show that Clinton was thevictim of some sexist campaigning.
"Latent sexism has been around this country for a longtime, in this campaign it was patent," Ferraro said.
OREGON AND KENTUCKY SPLIT?
Obama is favoured to win in Oregon, where opinion pollsgive him a lead hovering between 4 percentage points anddouble-digits, and Clinton is a big favourite in Kentucky. Thetwo states have a combined 103 delegates at stake on Tuesday.
Obama contends the remaining undecided superdelegates, whohave been trending his way heavily in recent weeks, shouldsupport him since he won the most delegates in state voting.
Obama will celebrate Tuesday's returns at a rally in Iowa,a general election battleground where he made his breakthroughwith a big win in the first Democratic contest on January 3.
A delegate count by MSNBC gives Obama 1,901 delegates toClinton's 1,724. He picked up five more superdelegates onMonday, including Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia.
After Tuesday, just three more contests will remain with 86delegates at stake. Slightly more than 200 superdelegatesremain uncommitted.
Obama has been cautious about pushing Clinton too hard toleave the race. Both candidates have avoided criticizing eachother since Obama's win in North Carolina earlier this monthmoved him closer to claiming the nomination.
Obama has focused in recent weeks on the general electionfight with McCain. On Monday, he stepped up attacks on theinfluence of lobbyists in the Arizona senator's campaign andfired back at McCain's criticism of his willingness to talk toleaders of hostile governments without preconditions.
The Clinton campaign sent a memo to reporters saying anyObama effort to declare himself the nominee on Tuesday would be"a slap in the face" to Clinton supporters.
"Premature victory laps and false declarations of victoryare unwarranted. Declaring 'mission accomplished' does not makeit so," Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason and Ellen Wulfhorst;editing by Mohammad Zargham)
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visitReuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online athttp:/blogs.reuters.com/trail08/ )