A historical moment at the campaign's midpoint

Sen. Barack Obama is the presumed nominee for the Democrats and will likely enter the fall the favorite over Sen. John McCain. But a lot can happen in five months, and Sen. Hillary Clinton is still a big player. Here's what to watch for after what we heard from three candidates Tuesday night.
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Sen. Barack Obama is the presumed nominee for the Democrats and will likely enter the fall the favorite over Sen. John McCain. But a lot can happen in five months, and Sen. Hillary Clinton is still a big player. Here's what to watch for after what we heard from three candidates Tuesday night.

And so it came to pass that on Tuesday, June 3, exactly five months after the Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses and five months ahead of the November general election, a major Western country for the first time nominated for its presidency a member of a racial minority.

Well, not yet nominated, because the actual nominating process will not culminate until the Democrats' August convention in Denver. But Illinois Sen. Barack Obama topped Tuesday night, after the final South Dakota and Montana primaries, the delegate total required for the nomination.

The putative Republican nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, and the runnerup for the Democratic nomination, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, also gained broad television exposure Tuesday night. The appearances of McCain, Clinton, and Obama gave us signals of what to expect of them in the immediate future.

Obama targets Republicans

Obama's remarks in St. Paul, Minn., the site of the Republican national convention, amounted to a general, generic attack on current Republican policies. It was tough on McCain. It set forth traditional Democratic themes in a partisan way. Its bottom line theme, of course, was change.

Whether he realizes it or not, Obama has evolved during the course of his campaign from a purveyor of hope, bipartisan cooperation, and problem solving to a more conventional liberal partisan championing positions on international trade, educational policy, and other issues which match those of key Democratic interest groups. This has happened, in part, because his closely contested race with Clinton caused him to make competitive interest-group appeals.

In becoming a more conventional partisan, Obama has taken a calculated risk. He will in the general election be able to hold young, first-time voters and African Americans. But he risks losing independent votes. He also must work hard to attract so-called Reagan Democratic, blue-collar, senior-citizen, and women's constituencies among whom Clinton ran strong in the nominating process.

Obama also has been distracted in recent days by more news reports regarding his relationships with controversial Chicago pastors, a 1960s radical bomber, and a notorious Chicago political fixer. All of this, taken together, has forced Obama onto the defensive and stolen some of his early magic.

Clinton attempts to steal spotlight

Clinton, speaking in New York, gave a speech which had to disappoint Obama. She congratulated him on a campaign well run but not well won. She spoke of her own strong popular-vote total, her victories in big electoral states, and declared she would make no decision on her own future until conferring with advisors and party leaders over a period of several days. She also invited supporters to communicate with her campaign Web site and advise her of their wishes. She spent surprisingly little time on Republicans or McCain.

Clinton had every right to crow. She did carry big states Democrats must win in the fall election. She finished more strongly than Obama, carrying a string of late primaries, including those Sunday, June 1, in Puerto Rico and Tuesday night in South Dakota. Had her campaign not complacently ceded early caucus states to Obama, she, rather than he, would gone over the top with a winning delegate total Tuesday night.

Clinton's speech appeared to confirm speculation over the past several days that she indeed wants the vice presidential nomination. It laid down her marker and invited Obama to make her some kind of offer. It would be surprising if her supporters' e-mails did not encourage her to continue in the nominating race until Denver. It will be interesting to see how many encourage her to challenge the party rules committee's vote last weekend on seating of the Michigan delegation to the convention and bring it to the party credentials committee next month.

Speculation on a Clinton vice presidential nomination will subside after a few days. After all, Obama will not make an official choice for many weeks. It also is uncertain whether Clinton really wants to be No. 2 — unless she believes Obama is a 2008 loser and a vice-presidential candidacy now would help her own 2012 nominating campaign.

The risks of a Clinton vice-presidential candidacy were brought home Monday and Tuesday by publication of a Vanity Fair profile of former President Bill Clinton, in which his recent personal and ethical conduct were questioned — and by the ex-president's coarse, name-calling characterizations of the article's author: National Editor Todd Purdum, husband of Dee Dee Meyers, Clinton's former White House press secretary. Such episodes, as well as new questions about the Clintons' sources of recent wealth, would constitute unwelcome baggage for Obama in facing an electorate wanting to turn the page.

McCain plays tortoise

McCain delivered a flat speech in Lousiana before a relatively small audience, both attacking Obama as a traditional liberal and attempting to establish himself as independent not only of the Bush administration but of interest-group politics in Washington, D.C. Read in text, the speech was effective; in delivery, it was not effective. Both Obama and Clinton are far better podium speakers than McCain and demonstrated it dramatically Tuesday night.

McCain has done well in campaign debates and in town hall question-and-answer sessions. Thus, he no doubt will avoid set piece speeches to the degree possible. But he badly needs several practice sessions delivering conventional speeches off a teleprompter.

Obama's shift to more traditional Democratic themes will help McCain's attempt to define himself as a maverick independent. Late polling in key electoral states — Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, for instance — showed Clinton running more strongly against McCain than Obama. McCain never counted on African-American and young voters. He will be able to compete against Obama in constituencies carried by Clinton in the primary season.

Yes, five full months remain until voters cast their general-election ballots. Five months are a lifetime in politics.

Despite Obama's fade in the late Democratic primary contests, he will enter the fall campaign as a favorite. A strong tide is running for change in the country. Democrats appear certain to make major gains in the House of Representatives and Senate.

But Obama is no certain winner. External and unforeseen events will take place between now and election day. The exhibition season is almost over. We are nearing the time when the games will begin to count.


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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 editor@crosscut.com.