McCain and Clinton both have serious problems

National update: Hillary Clinton must figure out a way to slow Barack Obama's surge of momentum, and Wisconsin may be a key state. John McCain's big drawback is having no real base in the party. Our campaign veteran also marvels at all the energy at a Labor Temple caucus.
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National update: Hillary Clinton must figure out a way to slow Barack Obama's surge of momentum, and Wisconsin may be a key state. John McCain's big drawback is having no real base in the party. Our campaign veteran also marvels at all the energy at a Labor Temple caucus.

Arizona Sen. John McCain has clinched the Republican presidential nomination and can prepare for the fall campaign. Democrats are locked in a tight two-way race which will not be resolved until their August convention in Denver. Right? Not necessarily. Maybe even wrong.

The Republicans

McCain seemed on easy street after former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's surprising suspension of his candidacy the day after last week's Super Tuesday contests, Feb. 5, in which he ran second to McCain. However, McCain has a world of problems he may not be able to overcome.

McCain's best interests would have been served by a continued Romney candidacy, thus enabling him to rack up victories, week by week, over both Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in three-way primary and caucus contests. Huckabee beat McCain last weekend in both Louisiana and Nebraska and almost beat him here in Washington. Romney would have done the same had Huckabee, rather than he, withdrawn last week. Fact is: McCain will remain hard-pressed to defeat any other Republican candidate in a two-way race and could limp onward in embarrassment, splitting with Huckabee one contest to the next.

McCain just plain lacks a base in his own party. His voting record is conservative, but he has crossed conservatives on immigration, campaign finance reform, and social issues. Moreover, within his party, he is seen as a guy who habitually has crossed his own president to gain political advantage for himself. McCain has drawn recent endorsements from GOP officeholders and big shots who believe he is the Republican with the best chance to win a general election against either Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois or Hillary Clinton of New York. Polling data indeed show McCain with strength among independent and some Democratic voters – mainly on the basis of his reputation as a maverick, straight-talking guy. But polling data are ephemeral.

National security and the economy are the two big issues in any presidential election. McCain is hostage to circumstance on both issues. He hitched himself irrevocably last year to the "surge" strategy in Iraq, which has established at least temporary stability there. But that situation could change at any moment between now and the November election. A setback in Iraq would be a big setback for McCain. Moreover, during his campaign McCain has confessed to general ignorance of economic and financial issues. No one has pressed him on it to date. But if the economy falls into recession, you can be sure both media and the opposition will press him mercilessly.

Romney, it should be noted, suspended rather than ended his campaign. That will enable him to keep his delegates and to keep his name on the ballot in upcoming primaries and caucuses – even though he will not be actively campaigning. Former Democratic Sen. Paul Tsongas did that in 1992, after a few primary contests, but continued to get strong vote totals as Democratic voters began to be disenchanted with the frontrunner, then-Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas. Tsongas had sufficient leverage at the convention that year to gain passage of his own economic-policy platform planks over Clinton's.

Worst case for McCain: Things go wrong both in Iraq and in the economy, Huckabee continues to dog him in the primaries, and Romney reactivates his candidacy just before or at the Republican convention.

Don't get me wrong. The odds still favor McCain as the GOP nominee. But events beyond his control still could cost him the nomination or, if he is nominated, leave him as vulnerable as Sens. Barry Goldwater and George McGovern, in 1964 and 1972, in the general election.

The Democrats

Obama won the majority of delegates chosen this past weekend in Washington, Nebraska, Louisiana, and Maine and has momentum going into Tuesday's District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia primaries, on Feb. 12. He is favored to gain a majority of votes and delegates in all three. Hillary Clinton badly needs a strong showing in at least one of those contests to slow Obama.

The next contests will be Tuesday, Feb. 19, with caucuses in Hawaii and a primary in Wisconsin. Obama will win Hawaii, where he is a native son. He will run strongly in Madison and other college towns in Wisconsin; Clinton should run well in blue-collar Milwaukee. If she does not stop Obama in Wisconsin, she surely must stop him March 4 in the rich delegate states of Ohio and Texas.

Conventional wisdom holds that Obama and Clinton will enter the August convention in Denver with nearly equal numbers of delegates. But that will not be true if Obama keeps outdistancing Clinton in votes, delegates, and fundraising. Circle March 5 on your calendar. We will know then if Obama and Clinton indeed are going to the convention in close contention or if Obama is poised for a final breakout.

Last Saturday's Washington caucuses, Feb. 9, were instructive and tended to validate recent voting patterns in other states. My own precinct caucus, held at the Labor Temple in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood, went 73-18 for Obama, with five undecided. One of the "undecideds," however, was a Clinton plant who attempted to sway the other four to Hillaryland. Outcomes were similar in eight other precinct caucuses held at the Labor Temple and so were demographic similarities. All black caucus attendees went for Obama. So did most young attendees of all genders and colors. Clinton forces were heavily weighted toward over-50 women and middle-aged men who might have been union members. The Obamans chanted "Yes we can!" and "Obama" while Clintonites stood impassively. The energy among the Obamans was almost wholly positive; few made anti-Hillary jibes. I talked during the caucus with three fellow Obama backers, all female first-time voters. All were avid but, as I, indicated they would support Hillary if she were nominated.

The Clinton media campaign and caucus literature in Washington and other states last weekend reflected the narrowing of the campaign's focus to Hillary's core constituency and issue. TV commercials were directed almost entirely to women voters. The only handouts at caucuses dealt with health care. When such narrowing happens in a campaign, it signals that it is on the defensive – trying to hold onto its base vote rather than trying to expand it.

Our caucus secretary told us that, four years ago, only six caucus-goers had turned out in our precinct, as compared to the 96 Saturday.

Super delegates

There will be elected and party officials at both the Republican and Democratic conventions who are there as "super delegates" – appointed rather than elected as delegates. Only five percent of Republican delegates will be super delegates. Thus they will not have leverage to play a decisive role there. But fully 20 percent of Democratic delegates will be in that category, and they could indeed have the balance of power at their convention.

Democratic super delegates were conceived after the 1972 and 1976 Democratic conventions, in which insurgent candidates McGovern and Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter had won their party's nomination. Most leading officeholders and party officials had supported other candidates and, thus, were not even delegates to the convention. The super-delegate positions were invented so that these party big shots would not be frozen out. A second reason: It was presumed that their presence would help hold off the nomination of future insurgents and result in selection of more generally acceptable nominees. Finally, it was thought that they could break future deadlocks between closely matched candidates before the deadlocks spawned divisive battles on credentials, rules, and platforms issues on the convention floor.

There are 17 Democratic super delegates from Washington. Those already committed to Obama include Gov. Chris Gregoire, U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, and Democratic National Committee member Pat Notter. Committed to Clinton are U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, King County Executive Ron Sims, U.S. Reps. Norm Dicks and Jay Inslee, and former House Speaker Tom Foley. Uncommitted are party chair Dwight Pelz, DNC members Ed Cole, Sharon Mast, and David McDonald, and U.S. Reps. Jim McDermott, Brian Baird, and Rick Larsen. As a practical matter, however, almost all super delegates, including those pledged to Obama or Clinton, likely would shift to the front-running candidate if and when it appeared that candidate was on the verge of nomination. Or at least that is the expectation.


Do they make a difference? Not much. Sen. Ted Kennedy's endorsement of Obama gave him momentum after his victory in South Carolina, but, then, Clinton won Massachusetts, despite Kennedy's and Sen. John Kerry's Obama endorsements. The Los Angeles Times endorsed Obama in the California primary, as did Maria Shriver Schwarzenegger, the gubernator's wife. Yet Clinton came away with a majority of votes and delegates. This is what usually happens. Leading local political figures not among the super delegates, who made endorsements prior to our Washington Democratic caucuses, included Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and all City Council members. Nickels and all male council members went for Obama; all female council members went for Clinton. In a progressive community such as ours, we are beyond race and gender. Right?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of