WASHINGTON (AFP) — Barack Obama set his sights on November's general election Saturday as he campaigned in Oregon, where he hopes to declare victory in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Obama has said Tuesday's primaries in Oregon and Kentucky could mark the end of his drawn-out battle with rival Hillary Clinton, and his campaign pressed home that message by announcing a symbolic return to Iowa that day.
Iowa was the scene of the Illinois senator's first victory in the 2008 presidential nominating race, and his campaign noted Saturday it is "a critical general election state that Democrats must win in November."
Polls show Obama leading in Oregon, where 52 delegates are up for grabs, while Clinton is ahead in Kentucky, a state with 51 delegates that has a similar demographic to West Virginia, where she won a thumping victory Tuesday.
His campaign says he needs just 17 more pledged delegates won through state votes to reach a majority of 1,627, not counting the "superdelegates," party officials who can vote either way at August's Democratic national convention.
Using a baseball analogy, Obama said May 8 that if after Tuesday's primaries "we have a majority of pledged delegates, which is possible, then I think we can make a pretty strong claim that we have got the most runs and its the ninth inning and we have won."
The official finishing line is 2,025 delegates, including superdelegates.
During a rally in Roseburg, Oregon, Saturday, Obama presented himself as the front-runner almost without question, attacking presumptive Republican nominee John McCain on foreign policy, the environment and healthcare.
Reviving Friday's furious row sparked by President George W. Bush's suggestion that Democrats wanted to appease terrorists, Obama said that not talking to North Korea and Iran had only made those states stronger.
"I want everybody to be absolutely clear about this because George Bush and McCain have suggested that me being willing to sit down with our adversaries is a sign of weakness and sign of appeasement," he said.
He also attacked McCain's plan for a gas tax holiday to cope with rising pump prices, which Clinton supports, as well as his other environmental plans, saying the Republican had consistently opposed fuel efficiency standards.
"For him to come to Oregon as an environmental president, but his big strategy is to do more drilling and to have a gas tax holiday for three months, that's a phony solution," he said.
Pitching his message to Oregon's environmentally-conscious voters, Obama called on the United States to "lead by example" on global warming, and develop new technologies at home which could be exported to developing countries.
"We can't drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times ... and then just expect that other countries are going to say OK," Obama said.
"That's not leadership. That's not going to happen," he added.
The Illinois senator also argued that the differences between his healthcare plan and that of Clinton "pale in comparison to the differences we have with John McCain," whose proposals would only work "if you're healthy and wealthy."
The escalating rhetoric between Obama and McCain has evoked the kind of campaign battles more common in the immediate run-up to an election -- and emphasized further Obama's pole position in the Democratic race.
But Clinton has vowed to keep fighting until the end of the primary season on June 3, and campaigning in Kentucky Saturday, she defended the plan for the gas tax holiday and accused McCain of having no idea how to fund it.
"Senator McCain said let's give everybody a gas tax holiday but doesn't want to pay for it. I think I've got the best plan. Let the oil companies pay it out of their excess profits," she said.
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