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All eyes on Wisconsin primaries

Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are in a tight race for the party's presidential nomination as voting started in Wisconsin and Hawaii. McCain hopes to strengthen his lead in Wisconsin and Washington. FRANCE 24's Guillaume Meyer reports.

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Democrat Hillary Clinton fought Tuesday to arrest her rival Barack Obama's stunning surge as Wisconsin became the latest battleground to vote in their bitter White House contest.

On the Republican side, John McCain was hoping to consolidate his front-runner status and woo wary conservatives after capturing the endorsement of former president George H. W. Bush.

Wisconsin was holding primaries for both parties. Hawaii was convening Democratic caucuses later Tuesday, while Washington state was electing 19 Republican delegates.

Obama was expected to win Hawaii, the Pacific islands state where he was born, but economically struggling Wisconsin was the far bigger prize with 74 Democratic delegates up for grabs.

Obama insisted that the country needs an inspirational leader to overcome a host of problems, and said he could knock Clinton out of the race when the heavyweight states of Ohio and Texas vote on March 4.

"Now we've got to campaign hard in Texas and Ohio. But after March 4th, I think the party's going to have to take a look and see if it's time for us to go ahead and move forward with a nomination," he said on NBC television.

Obama also rebuffed Clinton's argument that he would melt in the face of Republican attacks.

"First of all, I've had to go up against the Clinton machine. And it's not as if they're playing tiddlywinks, right?" he said. "So we've been battle-tested during the course of this primary."

If he does vanquish the former first lady in Wisconsin and Hawaii, the black senator from Illinois would lock in his 10th straight win in the fortnight since Super Tuesday's nationwide contests ended in a dead heat.

A Wisconsin win for Clinton would give the New York senator's faltering campaign a much-needed shot in the arm ahead of the showdown in Ohio and Texas, which offer a total of 334 delegates.

Clinton had been ahead by double digits in both states, but a CNN poll released Monday showed the race in Texas had narrowed to just two points, well within the margin of error.

And even decisive wins would not be enough to sew up the 2,025 delegates needed to cross the winning line -- leading to speculation of a convention brawl when the Democrats select their White House nominee in August.

Obama is ahead of Clinton by 1,302 to 1,235 delegates, according to independent political website RealClearPolitics.com.

With polls showing the Wisconsin race too close to call, both campaigns fired off combative television advertisements, and braved blizzards to shore up support across the chilly midwestern state.

The rival campaigns Monday accused each other of plagiarism in their speeches. Clinton laid into Obama over his soaring oratory.

"I have to say, there's a difference between speeches and solutions," Clinton told hundreds of supporters in Wisconsin's capital Madison.

"It is imperative that we have a president who is ready on day one, because the damage that will be waiting from the years of the misrule of George W. Bush deserves immediate action."

But while the Democrats fought over details and delegates, voters here struggled to choose between what many see as two highly qualified candidates with similar platforms.

Jeanne Parus, 62, did not decide until she reached her voting booth at a community center in Madison.

"I had to vote for Hillary because it was my first chance to vote for a woman," the ballet teacher told AFP.

Charles Leadholm, 58, also liked both candidates but voted for Obama because "he'll be able to inspire leaders" and create a groundswell of change.

While the Democrats slugged it out, Senator McCain basked in the elder Bush's endorsement. President George W. Bush has yet to endorse anyone, but has said he would help McCain if he wins the nomination.

McCain is almost assured to win the Republican nod, but former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has refused to step aside despite trailing by hundreds of delegates.

The Baptist preacher has been reaching out to the party's conservative base as he campaigns for a share of the 37 Republican delegates in Wisconsin, where polls were to close at 0200 GMT Wednesday.

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