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Tuesday’s exciting presidential primaries were about momentum, delegates and second looks.
In the Republican contest, these factors gave victory to the Lazarus candidate. John McCain’s campaign nearly collapsed eight months ago in a mass of debt and missteps. Tuesday, Mr. McCain became the GOP’s standard-bearer by passing the 1,191-delegate threshold needed for nomination. It was a remarkable comeback and personal triumph of character, grit and persistence.
The Democrats saw Hillary Clinton come back from the abyss for the third time this year. What is it about the Clintons living life on the political edge? Mrs. Clinton was on the edge after Iowa but recovered in New Hampshire. She was falling after losing South Carolina but recovered on Super Tuesday. She then endured 11 straight defeats that threatened to end her candidacy but won three of Tuesday’s four contests. However, as of Wednesday night, her victories only closed Mr. Obama’s delegate lead by nine, from 110 to 101.
As exciting as Tuesday night was, the Democratic contest has not shifted to advantage Mrs. Clinton. Mr. Obama still has a healthy advantage. There are 611 delegates to be elected in 12 future contests, 349 superdelegates have yet to commit, and 12 delegate spots from Tuesday’s primaries are still not allocated. To win, Mrs. Clinton must take 58% of these outstanding delegates. That’s a tall order.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, it doesn’t necessarily all depend on Pennsylvania and its 158 delegates. A big loss there could put Mrs. Clinton out. But if she wins, there are five more contests with more than 50 delegates at stake in each, and Mr. Obama could regain momentum. On May 6, North Carolina and Indiana vote. They have 187 delegates at stake—more than Pennsylvania. Right up until the final caucus on June 7 in Puerto Rico, there are a string of contests that can revive or crush hopes.
Remember: It has only been eight weeks since Iowans voted in the first contest of the season, though it seems like a geological age has passed. There are now seven weeks until Pennsylvania, nine weeks until North Carolina and Indiana, and 10 weeks until West Virginia. Imagine how many twists and turns are possible.
Neither Mr. Obama nor Mrs. Clinton can win with delegates elected in primaries and caucuses. In a real irony, the Democratic Party will settle its nominee battle with the aristocratic device of superdelegates—party apparatchiks, interest group leaders and elected officials, many of whom gained their post years ago. What happens if a bloc of superdelegates remains uncommitted until the convention? And what will happen to Florida and Michigan, which presently have no delegates? The last convention with only 48 states represented was 1956.
The big development to watch is not the rise of the “Obamicans”—Republicans who are backing the charismatic Illinois senator. The interesting electoral phenomenon is the emergence of the “McCainicrats”—Democrats backing Mr. McCain. It’s not just Sen. Joe Lieberman. In three recent polls, (Fox, LA Times/Bloomberg and Gallup), almost twice as many Democrats support Mr. McCain as Republicans support Mr. Obama. Three times as many Democrats support Mr. McCain as Republicans back Mrs. Clinton.
A long Democratic battle doesn’t automatically help the Republicans. In fact, it hurts the Republicans in certain ways. Mr. McCain becomes less interesting to the media. Stories about him move off page one and grow smaller. TV coverage becomes spotty and short. There are not yet big and deep and unbridgeable differences between the two Democrats and there is plenty of time to heal most wounds (except, perhaps among the young if Mrs. Clinton were to win). Continuing to build a profile and lay the predicate for the short fall campaign against either Democrat becomes the challenge for Mr. McCain while the Democrats battle it out.
So what must Mr. McCain and Mrs. Clinton do, especially in the seven weeks before Pennsylvania?
Both need to focus on Mr. Obama’s biggest weaknesses. One is the Illinois senator’s claim to be the new “post-partisan” leader to bring Republicans and Democrats together. Mr. McCain and Mrs. Clinton have earned reputations for doing that, though Mrs. Clinton rarely mentions it. Mr. Obama has no real record of voting and working across party lines on high profile issues like judges, immigration, intelligence reform, troop funding and energy.
Both can ask why Mr. Obama has failed to engage on these issues since his election to the Senate, while they have well-earned scars from tackling many of them.
Mr. McCain and Mrs. Clinton also need to continue highlighting Mr. Obama’s lack of experience. Mrs. Clinton’s surrogates and ads effectively hammered him on this. But voters were also encouraged in a subtle way by Mr. Obama himself to take a second look. His inspiring, but nearly substance-free, rhetoric is now raising questions. Sure, his Web site has position papers drafted by academic geeks galore, but voters may ask: “What has he done?”
Mrs. Clinton also must show more of the personal warmth and humor that came across in appearances on Saturday Night Live, the Daily Show and Fox. She needs to be disciplined. And she needs to stop worrying about appearing to be to the right of Mr. Obama.
Take, for example, Mr. Obama’s declaration that “true patriotism” consists of speaking out on the issues, not wearing a flag lapel pin, a practice he has given up. Mrs. Clinton could say people can do both and if Sen. Obama decided not to wear a flag pin, he shouldn’t question the “true patriotism” of those who chose to wear one. The blue-collar/lunch-pail crowd who’ve given Mrs. Clinton critical support would respond to that.
Mr. McCain, on the other hand, will have to work harder to get attention and prepare for the general election. And without a specific opponent, his principal focus should be on himself.
He needs to share a personal narrative about his life, values and inner beliefs in a way that is often uncomfortable to this private man. He must also follow through on his pledge of Tuesday night to carry his fight to every community and corner of America. It was a smart thing to say; it is a critical thing to do. Voters want candidates to ask for the vote of every American, not just the people who look and sound like the candidate.
Mr. McCain needs to define his views on Iraq and the global war on terror in ways that cause Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton to attack him. In politics as in war, the properly prepared counterpunch is often more powerful than the assault itself. But if he spends too much time too early directly attacking Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton, Mr. McCain could use up some of his most powerful material too early and run out of things to say just about the time voters start the process of comparing the Democratic nominee and Mr. McCain.
Tuesday was an exciting moment in what is already one of the most dramatic presidential primaries in decades. And with six months until the conventions and eight months until the general election, we have many exciting moments ahead in what for political junkies is a vintage year.