Dan Balz on Today's Contests

8 Questions the Potomac Primary Could Answer

Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. residents discuss who they voted for in Tuesday's Potomac Primary. Video by Nancy Donaldson and Whitney Shefte/washingtonpost.comEditor: Jonathan Forsythe/washingtonpost.com
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 12, 2008

1) Will a Sweep by Obama Make Him the Front-Runner?

Victories in Maryland, Virginia and the District would give Barack Obama a narrow but undisputed lead among pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Together with the rest of his recent string of victories, such a sweep would bestow unmistakable momentum heading toward next week's primary in Wisconsin and caucus in Hawaii.

That kind of success normally would be enough to crown someone a front-runner, but in this case, it would make Obama, as Democratic pollster Mark Mellman put it, "a front-runner by inches in a tied race." In this race at least, as Democratic strategist Don Fowler noted, "front-runner does not mean winner."

Rarely have the experts been so divided on a question as they are on this one. Their divisions underscore the chastening effect of what already has happened in this race, the rules by which this nomination is being waged and the respect many have for Hillary Rodham Clinton's operation, despite multiple losses over the weekend and the possibility of another bad day today.

There are good reasons to avoid slapping that label on Obama. One is that his margin in delegates will be far smaller than the number of superdelegates still undecided, and it is still assumed that the Clinton camp will be ferocious in its pursuit of those still undeclared. Another reason is Obama himself, who is likely to prefer to continue running as an outsider and an underdog.

Obama may not be able to claim the status of front-runner until Ohio and Texas have been heard from on March 4 and Pennsylvania on April 22. Clinton's recent losses mean she needs a circuit breaker before March 4 -- perhaps the two debates scheduled the week before Ohio and Texas offer that opportunity -- to change the dynamic of the race.

But front-runner?

"Obama may win the nomination," wrote Mark Kornblau, a former aide to John Edwards. "But he'll be the underdog and the challenger until the day Hillary steps aside."

2) Will the Clinton-Obama Race Split the Party?

Not until it does. There have been nasty exchanges and low moments, but so far the Clinton and Obama campaigns have managed to pull back from the brink each time they've come close to a major explosion. Most strategists expect that will continue to be the pattern, but the seeds for serious discord exist.

There is a consensus that an Obama victory would be easier for the Democratic Party to accept, that Clinton's supporters would be more receptive to an Obama nomination than his supporters would be to a Clinton win. That reflects the passion of many of his supporters and the fact that they are younger and in some cases newer to the process.

What gives Democrats heart -- and clearly worries Republicans -- is that the Obama-Clinton contest does not reflect a deep, ideological split within the party. The Republican Party appears to be more divided along ideological lines right now.

The endgame will be critical if Democrats hope to avoid the kind of rupture that happened after the Carter-Kennedy battle of 1980. If the losing candidate goes out in a blaze of attacks, the bitterness will linger. If superdelegates appear to run counter to the popular vote, that will put the losing side in a deep funk. If this battle goes to the convention, the chances increase significantly.

"The Democrats have some healing to do, some reconciling that naturally occurs after every primary season," wrote Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's presidential campaign and is an undeclared superdelegate. "I believe Clinton and Obama are up to the task."

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