8 Questions the Potomac Primary Could Answer

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."

3) Will Edwards Endorse Someone Soon?

The candidates have started courting their former rival and he has been receptive to their overtures. That is a sign to Democratic insiders that he's getting ready to declare his support for one of them. The cynical view is that he'll endorse "as soon as he gets what he wants," as one strategist put it, though it's not clear what that is. Another wrote that Edwards would risk irrelevance in the biggest race in decades if he stays on the sidelines now, although that is not a universal view.

An endorsement would make a big splash -- the biggest since Sen. Edward M. Kennedy announced his support of Obama -- but how much it matters isn't clear. Given Edwards's criticism of Clinton during the debates, it would be a blow to Obama to lose him. Edwards could help Obama, particularly among white men in Ohio and Texas. The candidates' competition for his support suggests they believe it would be very valuable.

4) Will Obama Catch Clinton Among Superdelegates?

Yes -- if he keeps winning. Clinton has clear advantages in this battle for party insiders and has used them to build up an early lead. At this point, however, the superdelegates are likely to wait to see how the nomination battle unfolds, at least over the next month.

There are about 800 such delegates, and about half of them are still uncommitted. They may hold the balance of power in determining the nomination, given the fact that it will be difficult for either candidate to reach the 2,025-delegate threshold needed to win the nomination based on the results of remaining contests.

Clinton's money problems and staff shake-up may rattle some superdelegates who had assumed at the start of this campaign that she had the superior fundraising capacity and a seasoned team that could weather unexpected problems.

Few know this delegate game better than Harold Ickes, who is overseeing Clinton's superdelegate hunt. But Republican consultant Mike Murphy said that if Obama sweeps contests today and then wins Ohio, Texas or both, look out. "It'll be a combination of true enthusiasm [for Obama] and the old pol's rule of 'Be for what is going to happen,' " he wrote.

5) Does a Long Democratic Contest Help McCain?

Of course. The extended Democratic race affords the Republican front-runner any number of advantages, starting with the ability to get some rest. The candidates and their staffs are worn out mentally and physically after what is already the longest and most intensive nomination battle in history. As Clinton and Obama continue at a punishing pace, John McCain can relax and recharge.

Beyond that, McCain will be able to campaign solely against the Democrats, beginning a general election argument long before Clinton or Obama can. The money he raises between now and the convention can be put to that purpose as well. He can start to unify the GOP -- not a moment too soon, in his case -- and begin to build a general-election field organization.

But the Democratic race has captured the country's attention, and McCain will find it hard to get much attention as long as that battle continues. If it ends in a civil way, the Democratic base will be energized and enthusiastic. Obama and Clinton also will gain potentially valuable exposure in some upcoming general-election battlegrounds that McCain may not. Democrats may worry about a long contest damaging the party's chances in November, but some Republicans doubt this is going to be a major factor come fall.

6) Will McCain Prove He Can Win Over Conservatives?

This remains Topic A in Republican circles, and Virginia's results will help answer the question. With Mike Huckabee still in the race, McCain will struggle, as the weekend's results showed. On Saturday, Huckabee easily won Kansas and narrowly won Louisiana. As Louisiana exit polls showed, McCain was thumped among conservatives and white evangelical Christians.

McCain's efforts to reach out to conservative leaders may produce some positive results, but expect continued resistance. He is not a schmoozer or sweet-talker and will find this part of being the party's standard-bearer onerous.

Once there are no alternatives, Republicans and many Democrats expect that conservatives will line up behind McCain. "The eventual answer is 'yes,' " wrote Republican pollster Neil Newhouse, "but getting from here to there isn't necessarily going to be all that easy."

7) How Long Will Huckabee Keep Going?

Huckabee's low-budget campaign continues to surprise, which is incentive enough to keep going. Strategists offer a variety of answers as to when he might quit: When McCain hits the 1,191 delegates needed to win the nomination. When Huckabee clearly surpasses former governor Mitt Romney as the second-place finisher in delegates won. When he is assured of a prominent speaking slot at the Republican National Convention. Or perhaps, if he loses everywhere today, he may think about getting out now.

Huckabee dismisses the long odds against him. As the Baptist minister told an audience over the weekend, he didn't major in math in college, he majored in miracles. The pressure will grow rapidly after this week, but if Huckabee were influenced by elite opinion in his party or the drumbeat in the media, he would never have accomplished what he has been able to so far.

But having made himself a force, he'll now have to consider his future and decide whether he's putting that in jeopardy.

Which Local Politicians Will Be on the VP Short List?

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine was one of the first prominent Democrats to support Obama, endorsing him a year ago.

Former Virginia governor Mark Warner considered running for the Democratic nomination but is now seeking the seat of retiring Sen. John W. Warner (R). He and freshman Sen. James Webb (D) are both on the fence in the presidential race.

Among Republicans, John Warner is with McCain, as is former governor James Gilmore, who ran briefly for the GOP nomination and is now after the open Senate seat. Former senator George Allen, who hoped to run for president until he lost his reelection bid in 2006, is also now with McCain.

So which of them will be in the veepstakes? Democrats bet that Mark Warner, Webb and Kaine will be considered. But Warner may have cost himself a serious look because of his Senate candidacy, because Democrats don't want to jeopardize picking up that seat. Obama appreciates Kaine's early support and likes the prospect of winning traditionally red Virginia. But a ticket made up of two candidates serving in their first terms is unlikely.

On the Republican side, nobody contacted was willing to bet that either Allen or Gilmore would make it to the McCain short list. But in this contest of surprises, who knows?

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