A week in politics is a lifetime, seven weeks an eternity.
Yet it will be another seven weeks – and perhaps not until their late-summer convention – before Democrats sort out their presidential nomination. Meantime, Sen. John McCain of Arizona wrapped up the Republican nomination Tuesday night, March 4. His sole remaining rival, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, gave McCain his generous endorsement and pledge of support.
Republicans, in the wake of Tuesday contests in Vermont, Rhode Island, Ohio, and Texas, are coming together. Democrats, by contrast, face a period in which they risk tearing themselves apart.
Former President Bill Clinton dubbed himself "the comeback kid" in 1992 when he finished a relatively weak second to former Sen. Paul Tsongas in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, with her Tuesday night performance at the polls, now can claim that nickname legitimately.
She seemed on the brink of elimination from the nominating contest going into the same New Hampshire primary earlier this year and pulled out a hard-fought victory. She had lost 11 straight primaries and caucuses to Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois before Tuesday's results – 12 straight when early returns brought Obama a victory in Vermont – and faced pressure within her party to withdraw if she could do no more than claim an expected victory in Rhode Island. She not only won Rhode Island but proved her vote-gettting power in both Ohio and Texas, despite being badly outspent by the Obama campaign in both states over the past fortnight. Her powerful showing in Ohio was particularly impressive.
Obama still has an overall lead in delegates. He will be favored in two upcoming skirmishes, Wyoming caucuses on March 8, and a Mississippi primary on March 11, in which he should marginally add to that lead. But Clinton will put herself back into true contention if she can win the April 22 primary in Pennsylvania, a state whose Democratic electorate resembles that of Ohio.
What happened Tuesday night?
As Obama put it, the Clinton campaign "threw the kitchen sink" at him over the past week. It ran a "red-telephone" television commercial (the same one used by the 1984 Walter Mondale campaign against challenger Gary Hart in that year's Democratic primaries), questioning Obama's ability to handle a national-security crisis. The Clinton campaign also fed media the story of a meeting between Obama's principal economic advisor and Canadian diplomats in which the advisor said Obama was only grandstanding when he made anti-NAFTA campaign statements. During the same period, media were focusing on the Chicago legal troubles of a major Obama political sponsor. Clinton, facing elimination and with little to lose, went on the attack in her personal campaign appearances.
Tracking data showed us what was happening in both Ohio and Texas. Clinton held 20-point leads over Obama in both states two weeks ago. Then, in the wake of Obama's Super Tuesday victories on Feb. 5, her margins narrowed steadily until last weekend. Then, over the weekend and into Tuesday, previously undecided voters broke strongly in Clinton's favor. This was the period when the kitchen-sink strategy was fully implemented.
What will happen now?
Despite her strong Ohio and Texas showings Tuesday, Clinton still trails Obama in delegates. But she has now re-established herself as a serious contender for – and possible winner of – the Democratic nomination. That will enable her to raise money for a full-bore effort in the now-critical April 22 Pennsylvania primary.
Off to the side, so-called "super-delegates" who were on the verge of moving en masse to Obama will hold off on their endorsements. Clinton can be expected to press her case on seating of Florida and Michigan delegations, presently banned by party rules from doing so at the Democrats' Denver convention. All Democratic candidates pledged not to campaign in Florida and Michigan, but Clinton did so anyway and now claims those states' delegates should be seated and allocated to her. She will not be successful in pressing that claim but might be able to force, at a minimum, the holding of fresh primaries in those delegate-rich states in May or June.
Obama, now threatened, will sharpen the tone of his own campaign. We can expect both candidates, their surrogates, and their media campaigns to become increasingly negative. Both candidates' core constituencies – young voters and African Americans for Obama; over-50 white women and blue-collar whites for Clinton – could be alienated by increasing negativism toward their standardbearers.
Bottom line for Democrats: The next seven weeks, leading up to Pennsylvania, will be characterized by hard-edged campaigning, which could cross good-conduct lines. The Clinton campaign will be the aggressor, but Obama, smarting after failing to wrap things up Tuesday, will not hold back.
Will Democrats thus snatch November defeat from the jaws of victory? No, it is far too soon to reach such a conclusion. The fundamentals still continue to favor a Democratic recapture of the White House and a strengthening of Democratic majorities in Congress. But the risk of Democratic self-destruction is there. My instinct tells me that Obama will win the upcoming Wyoming and Mississippi contests and regain some momentum. But it is impossible to tell, seven weeks ahead, how things will turn out in the next big battleground, Pennsylvania.
By the way, it is still a full eight months until the fall general election.
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