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8 Questions That Today's Primaries Could Answer

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Will the Democratic race end with today's results?

1. The one certain way to end the race is for Barack Obama to win both Texas and Ohio -- no small undertaking. That would erase any doubts that may exist about his ability to take big states or to energize a working-class base in a crucial general-election state. It would create enormous pressure on Hillary Rodham Clinton to bow out.

Even an Obama victory in one of today's two big states is likely to result in the race ending, although perhaps not immediately. Former president Bill Clinton established that benchmark recently and though his wife's advisers have tried to back away from it, many Democrats have adopted it as the measure by which they judge today's results.

"WJC's [William Jefferson Clinton's] comments were extremely harmful in managing expectations," noted one Democratic strategist.

Some senior Clinton advisers accept the former president's political logic, but the candidate may be reluctant to end her campaign if she wins Ohio or Texas after two hard weeks of campaigning. But New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's comments on Sunday -- that whoever holds the lead in delegates after Tuesday should be the nominee -- is a mild version of what Clinton will hear if she loses both.

If she wins Ohio and Texas, then the race will continue to Pennsylvania and perhaps beyond. She will have some fresh momentum, but Obama will still have more delegates.

"Obama can lose everything on Tuesday and still win the nomination," wrote Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "Clinton could win all four states and still lose the nomination. But a politically consequential victory for Clinton requires wins in both Texas and Ohio."

Can Clinton ever overtake Obama in pledged delegates?

2. Every political junkie around the country is spending hours with Slate's delegate calculator on the Internet or with more complex spreadsheets that are being passed around by e-mail. Plug in what you think the results will be in Ohio or Texas or Pennsylvania or Puerto Rico and see how the delegates divide between Clinton and Obama. It's more fun than filling out those Final Four brackets.

The latest Associated Press delegate counts available on washingtonpost.com show Obama with 1,352 and Clinton with 1,239, a margin of 113. CNN says Obama is leading by 143. The Obama and Clinton campaigns are in relative agreement. Obama's team claims a 162-delegate lead, while Clinton's says he is ahead by 160.5.

There are 370 pledged delegates at stake today. After Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont have been counted, only 611 pledged delegates will be left in the remaining contests. No matter how you run the numbers, the conclusion is always the same: There is virtually no realistic way for Clinton to emerge from the primary-caucus season with more pledged delegates than Obama.

"His delegate advantage is too great, his resource advantage is too powerful and the effect of PR is too much for her to overcome his pledged delegate lead," wrote Tad Devine, the Democratic strategist who helped create the proportional system that governs the nomination battle.

Or as Ben Ginsberg, one of President Bush's lawyers who fought the Florida recount eight years ago, put it: "Not even the Dems' Florida recount team can get her there."

The Clinton counter to this is that pledged delegates alone will not get Obama to the majority that either candidate needs to win the nomination, leaving the outcome in the hands of the superdelegates -- those elected officials and party leaders who have turned off their phones rather than having to say no to one of the candidates.

How badly will competition split the Democratic Party?

3. Democrat Ron Klain was the most emphatic in arguing that a continuation of the race will not damage the party. "What I see are record numbers of donors giving to the candidate, record numbers of volunteers in both campaigns, and record numbers of voters participating," he wrote. "The Democratic Party's best minds and best leaders have never constructed a recruitment plan as successful for growing the party as the Clinton-Obama race has thus far."

Other Democrats generally agree with that, but worry that bad feelings could develop if Obama wins Texas or Ohio and Clinton continues to fight on. If Clinton kept going against overwhelming odds, one strategist said, the party could emerge divided.

"It will only split the party -- and it will split the party -- if it looks like the Clinton machine is trying to steal the nomination from a legitimate and electable African American candidate who played by the rules."

Democrats worry most about an alienated African American community if Obama does not become the nominee. But one strategist said the party may end up with many female voters unhappy if Clinton does not win.

Republicans hope the race continues. "It's not a matter of splitting the party as much as it is providing us on the GOP side of the aisle with talking points and ammunition for the fall campaign," wrote Republican Neil Newhouse. "While the length of the Democrats' race certainly has captured the attention and interest of the electorate, the longer this goes on, the better chance [John] McCain has in November."

What will superdelegates do if Obama wins one big state?

4. Superdelegates broke early for Clinton, giving her a substantial lead as the primaries and caucuses began. Now more are signing up with Obama.

"Superdelegates are breaking to Obama now and that will continue if he wins either Texas or Ohio," wrote Democratic strategist Steve Murphy, who was an adviser in Richardson's presidential campaign.

Other strategists predicted that a split decision in Ohio and Texas would slow that flow toward Obama, although Obama officials have said they have more superdelegates in the pipeline ready to roll out after today's contests, and one strategist said a big batch could be announced tomorrow.

There will be 796 of these delegates and they would much prefer that the voters determine the outcome of this race. The Obama campaign says these superdelegates should support whoever leads in pledged delegates, but the Democratic Party rules call for them to act independently. Most strategists say it would take an extraordinary development for them not to ratify the results from the primaries.

"Superdelegates as a group will not overturn the clear front-runner in popular vote and delegate count," noted Democratic strategist Donnie Fowler. "A 150-, 200-delegate lead going into the summer probably draws the line over which they will not cross."

Will Clinton hold her blue-collar base?

5. Clinton's Ohio campaign has been pitched directly to white working-class voters and holding them is the key to her winning the primary there. She has appealed to these voters by promising to be their champion as president, and some strategists believe it is working.

"I have been impressed by how HRC has held her numbers in Ohio, in a window where the free media couldn't have been worse," wrote one Democratic strategist who knows the Buckeye electorate intimately. "The pundits on TV constantly say that she has lost her demographic base. I don't believe that."

Clinton's Ohio events have been heavily populated with women and her support among women in economically hard-pressed households looks to be holding. The question is how much Obama can cut into her support among white men in those households.

One Democratic strategist noted that the Clintons have a huge advantage among these voters because they have made the economy the heart of their message since Bill Clinton first ran for president in 1992 and, in Ohio in particular, the economic issue dwarfs all others. "It is the one and maybe only area where her association and ties to Bill Clinton help her," one strategist noted. "Clinton is to the economy what Russia is to caviar."

Will Obama crack the Hispanic vote?

6. Texas will be the big test of whether Obama, after 11 straight victories, can begin to show real strength among Hispanic voters. Clinton has owned this constituency in virtually every contest this year.

She began with a big head start because of her experience in South Texas in 1972 when she registered voters on behalf of George S. McGovern's presidential campaign. She knows the region and the community and has had a big lead among Hispanics in recent polling.

Obama, however, is seeking to do with the Hispanic community what he has done generally, which is to energize the younger generation and work out from there. There's little likelihood that he will come close to Clinton among Hispanics, and he probably doesn't need to if his numbers with other groups are strong.

But Democrats know that Sen. John McCain is better positioned than any other Republican who ran this year to compete for the Hispanic vote in November and that they need a nominee who generates excitement and enthusiasm in the Latino community. Obama has yet to prove he's that person.

Will McCain persuade Huckabee to quit?

7. McCain needs 1,191 delegates to win the nomination and is poised to reach that number today. He has 1,014 delegates, according to the Associated Press, and the four states voting today will have 256 to award. He'll claim the nomination with his victory speech.

Several strategists predicted the end for former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee would come after the results from Texas are tallied. "The Huck will suspend after Texas," predicted GOP strategist Mike Murphy said. "He's tired of being the star forward of the Washington Generals against the McCain Globetrotters."

Others are baffled by his continued presence. "Who knows why Huckabee is really still in the race, so that makes it tough to know what will get him to drop out," wrote Democrat Jamal Simmons.

Most important is the fact that McCain doesn't seem to care what Huckabee does. He's focused on locking up more endorsements, making the transition from a primary campaign message to a general-election message, raising money as fast as he can and attacking Obama.

Can you explain the Texas voting system?

8. Very simple, really. By day, Texas conducts a primary, open to all comers. When the polls close tonight, the Democrats will hold caucuses in 8,000 sites around the state, open to anyone who participated in the primary. The primary will award two-thirds of the delegates, the caucuses the rest.

The real question is whether this system, dubbed the Texas two-step, makes any sense. The Clintons, who by now have a deep aversion to all things caucus-related, have expressed their unhappiness with the system.

Some strategists dislike it: "Ordinary people don't have time for both," said one. "Neither justifiable or understandable," said another. "What a racket!" wrote a third. "If they knew the state mattered, they would have changed it."

But many others defended it, noting that the Democratic National Committee, which includes many Clinton loyalists, had approved it. "The Texas system is great," wrote one. "It's been the same system for many, many years," noted another. "Everyone who paid attention, or did their homework, knew the rules."

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