AS we approach Super Tuesday, Barack Obama
has been surging all week - closing the enormous gap he once faced in
most key states. But his momentum has yet to carry him over the top. Hillary Clinton still clings to leads, sometimes narrow, in the bulk of the states in play.
Of the 10 states with reliable and recent poll data, Hillary leads in
eight, although by razor-thin margins in California, Alabama, Missouri,
Connecticut and New Jersey. Only in New York, Massachusetts and
Tennessee does her lead seem secure.
How did the Clinton machine falter so badly? And will the trend for Obama continue?
Every election is, at some level, a simple conversation between the two
camps. Obama began the campaign by saying he was new; Hillary replied
that he was inexperienced. Obama answered that he was a voice for
change - and that was the state of discussion leading up to Iowa.
Then, after losing Iowa and almost failing in New Hampshire, the
Clintons basically panicked and played the race card - injecting it
into a contest that had been colorblind.
emphasizes in every speech that she could be the first woman president,
Obama had rarely mentioned race. He ran for the Democratic nomination
like a Republican black - never summoning victim status and avoiding
racial remarks entirely.
Had the Clintons shut up and let the
black voters of South Carolina do their talking for them, the block
African-American vote there for Obama would've brought the race issue
home to undecided white voters, triggering a pro-Hillary backlash. But
they couldn't keep quiet. Their oh-so-subtle racial innuendo (for which
I doubt they thought they would get caught), philosophizing about the
relative roles Martin Luther King and President Lyndon Johnson in
achieving civil rights, landed them in the hot water.
nothing else new to say, Hillary, in effect, countered Obama's message
of change by saying "You're black." When Bill compared Obama to Jesse
Jackson, the point was obvious.
But Obama parried with great skill in his victory speech in South
Carolina by stipulating that the election was about overcoming
divisions and coming together as a nation.
That brilliant move left the Clintons flat-footed.
Hillary's performance in the week after South Carolina was scripted and
prosaic - a mere repetition of her rhetorical lines from the past. Like
a juke box, she played poll-tested golden oldies all week - hoping we'd
all sing along with her choruses.
It's been as if the Clintons, lacking dirt to throw, had nothing to say.
Yet Obama's gains still leave him shy of his mark. Tomorrow may bring a
deadening roll call of narrow Hillary wins, particularly in the eight
caucus states, where her control of the party apparatus gives her an
Hillary has a reserve army of poor, single, white women
whose support is intense and unwavering. It might be enough to pull her
through. Or Obama's surge could continue, with his eloquence and
positioning on the diversity issue transforming narrow defeats to
victories in a host of toss-up states.
The Republican primaries are all but over. Of the 10 states with decent poll data, John McCain
has leads in eight, with Mitt Romney ahead only in his native
Massachusetts and Mike Huckabee leading in Georgia. Most GOP states
award delegates on a winner-take-all basis, so McCain's lead in
delegates coming out of Tuesday should be insurmountable.
McCain's likely nomination is, of course, very bad news for the
Democrats. He is, by far, the candidate most likely to beat Hillary in
November. The very immigration bill that made him anathema to many
conservatives can help him attract significant Hispanic support, while
the bitterness of the Clinton-Obama contest is likely to drive many
anti-Hillary Independents and Democrats to support the moderate
maverick from Arizona. (One thinks of how anger at Lyndon Johnson drove
many liberals to vote for Nixon against Humphrey in 1968).
McCain should have little real difficulty in consolidating the
Republican and conservative ranks behind him - especially if his
adversary is Hillary Clinton. Animosity to the New York senator may be just the elixir McCain needs to unite his party.