Monday, March 10, 2008

It Ain’t Over Till the Fat Lady Sings ... and She Hasn’t Yet

By Stuart Rothenberg

OK, it’s official: The Democratic race for president is officially screwed up. Forget the silly candidate spinning. With any luck, you weren’t listening when Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s operatives told you what New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton needed to do in order to win or how it’s impossible for her to win enough delegates in the remaining tests to allow her to pass Obama’s total or be nominated in Denver.

And I hope you ignored all of those spinners and strategists from Clinton’s campaign who said that if Obama didn’t sweep the March 4 primaries, it would be a rejection of him.

Obama may still have more pledged delegates than Clinton, but Tuesday’s primary confirmed that Democratic voters are still deeply divided about which Democrat they want to carry their party’s banner in the fall. Neither presidential hopeful is in a commanding position in the race. Neither one has the kind of momentum that normally is associated with being a frontrunner.

Yes, delegates matter, and the Illinois Democrat remains ahead in delegates. But — as the Obama folks have been arguing when it suits them — the popular vote is crucial because it reflects the fundamental wishes of the people. And the size of Clinton’s win in Ohio (and in Rhode Island, too), as well as her win in the Texas primary, can’t easily be ignored.

What many Democratic strategists and insiders have been hoping for is a clean victory, a knockout blow that makes it crystal clear which contender Democrats want as their presidential nominee. Instead, Tuesday confirmed only that Democrats can’t agree on their nominee.

The problem for Democrats is that the race is certain to get more negative and more personal over the next seven weeks, until Pennsylvania in late April, all but guaranteeing increased bitterness and division. That’s not good for a party that would prefer that Clinton and Obama spend their resources attacking Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) rather than each other.

Indeed, the two campaigns’ overflowing war chests become something of a problem for the party, instead of an asset. Both Obama and Clinton have so much cash — and will raise more over the next few weeks — that they have plenty of resources to pummel each other with, adding to the division within the party.

The only good news in all of this for Democrats is that Clinton and Obama will continue to spend resources identifying and turning out Democratic voters, and building organizations in states they ordinarily would ignore.

Still, back in the middle of January, liberal Democratic bloggers were chortling over the chaos in the GOP primary, laughing about how the Republican race could go on indefinitely after Mike Huckabee won Iowa, McCain won New Hampshire and Mitt Romney won Michigan. One blogger even encouraged Democrats to participate in the GOP race just to stir the pot and drag out the Republican race. Bad karma. Very bad karma.

The 2008 presidential race already has reminded us of something very important: We are a nation of separate states, and states are more than lines on a map. They are more than artificial distinctions.

Each state has its own political culture, its own demographic reality. A candidate who wins in Iowa doesn’t automatically win in New Hampshire. Wisconsin voters aren’t the same as Ohio voters. Indeed, Hispanic Democrats in Connecticut aren’t just like Hispanic Democrats in Texas.

The longer the Democratic race continues, the more likely Obama will come under intense media scrutiny. From Clinton’s point of view, the longer the contest goes on, the more the chance that the Illinois Senator will make a mistake, maybe even a major blunder.

The Democratic contest has been all about momentum, and Clinton supporters now have the right to feel that their candidate’s message about experience and readiness for the job has finally started to take hold. Of course, we don’t know if that is true. Ohio and Rhode Island may just be different from Nebraska, Hawaii and Alabama. But at least it gives Clinton supporters an argument that they can make over the next few weeks.

Tuesday’s results, and the prolonged Democratic race, once again resuscitate the Michigan and Florida debate. Party insiders know that they can’t seat delegates elected in violation of Democratic National Committee rules, but they also can’t have a national nominating convention without delegates from two large states.

Former Bush strategist Karl Rove said on the Fox News Channel on Tuesday night that McCain may be hurt by the fact that he will become invisible over the next month as members of the national media and the public focus on the Democratic race.

Last time I looked, the general election isn’t until November, and McCain could use a few weeks to relax, recharge his batteries, raise money and reach out to party activists and insiders. He’s far better off having Democrats and Republicans alike watch Obama and Clinton raise questions about each other’s judgment, readiness and character, even if it means the focus isn’t on him. He’ll have more than enough time to tell his story.

This column
first appeared in Roll Call on March 6, 2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.