Dan Balz on Today's Primaries

8 Questions Super Tuesday Could Answer

Democratic and Republican presidential candidates campaign across the nation as voters go to the polls on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2008, when 24 states hold primaries, caucuses or state conventions.
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Will Either Race End Today?

1) Democratic strategist Bill Carrick put it best: "To paraphrase Churchill," he wrote in an e-mail, "the Democrats are at the end of the beginning and the Republicans are at the beginning of the end."

The Republican race is on the brink of ending, unless John McCain stumbles badly. GOP rules mean he should win a big batch of delegates by carrying such winner-take-all states as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Missouri. California has become more competitive, which prompted Mitt Romney to return to the state for a late rally. He hopes a win there will trigger a conservative backlash against McCain.

Even if McCain has a good night, Romney and Mike Huckabee may stay in the race, but unless Romney can pick up in the neighborhood of 400 delegates, he may have trouble catching up.

The Democratic race will not end today and may not end for another two months. Today's contests will end up awarding more than 1,800 delegates -- half of the pledged delegates going to the national convention in Denver in August -- but party rules make it difficult for a candidate to emerge with a substantial lead. Clinton is counting on New York, New Jersey, Arkansas and California as her base. Obama's strength is in Illinois and the half-dozen states with caucuses rather than primaries, but his campaign predicts neither candidate will emerge with a lead of more than 100 delegates. As a result, both campaigns are looking ahead to contests in the District and states such as Maryland, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin, all of which will be held this month, and to Ohio and Texas on March 4.

What Constitutes Victory?

2) This is obviously easier to answer on the Republican side: The candidate who wins the most states and the most delegates will be today's winner, and that is expected to be McCain. On the Democratic side, party strategists say some combination of popular vote, states won and delegates accumulated will figure into the assessments of who won.

History suggests that winning states creates psychological success, which is to say that if either candidate wins a clear majority -- say, 14 or 15 of the 22 at stake -- that would be seen as a big night, even though the delegate count will probably show a very close race.

There will be a major spin war by the Clinton and Obama campaigns in what may be the most consequential such public relations battle since Walter Mondale's campaign spun itself out of a weak performance on Super Tuesday 1984. But there are reasons to be cautious about declaring winners and losers. Nevada is an example: Clinton had a higher percentage of voters in the state's Democratic caucus, but Obama may emerge with one more delegate. Polls in California do not close until 11 p.m. Eastern time, and late-arriving absentee ballots may not be counted until tomorrow.

What States Bear Watching?

3) In the Democratic race, California always merits watching, and all the more because of polls showing what was a healthy lead for Clinton shrinking on the final week. Clinton would have trouble recovering if Obama wins the popular vote.

Missouri is usually a general-election bellwether, and the two candidates have appeared evenly matched there. Keys there will be winning union voters and whether Obama's support from Sen. Claire McCaskill cuts into Clinton's strength with women.

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