Unsettled Race Leaves McCain Free to Campaign Unchallenged

President Bush invites newly-designated Republican Presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to the White House for a private lunch on March 5, 2008, before announcing his endorsement.
By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 5, 2008; 11:47 AM

Another dramatic election night has left the contest for the Democratic nomination more unsettled than ever, while clearing the way for Republican Sen. John McCain to make his case to general-election voters largely unchallenged -- for now -- by attacks from the other party.

With more delegates in hand and some party leaders anxious to coalesce behind him, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) still has a more plausible path to the Democratic nomination than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.). But his path just got much rockier.

Wins in three of last night's four primaries, including the big two of Texas and Ohio, brought Clinton's candidacy off the mat and gave her nearly seven more weeks to make the case that she is the more experienced and effective agent of change in advance of what is shaping up to be the crucial Pennsylvania primary.

"March 4 gets her back into the game," said William A. Galston, a veteran of past Democratic presidential campaigns who is supporting Clinton. "It gives her a fighting chance, but the hill she has to climb is still very steep."

Despite Clinton's popular-vote victories last night, the Illinois senator maintained his lead in delegates--1,477 to 1,391, according to the Associated Press this morning--and Obama partisans said it will be virtually impossible for her to catch up in the remaining contests.

Clinton's only chance appears to be winning a decisive majority among the superdelegates, those unpledged elected officials and party leaders who can choose any candidate they like. Roughly 350 superdelegates remain uncommitted, but the 450 or so who have already pledged support to a candidate can reverse their decisions at any time.

"He still has an undeniable upper hand, in terms of the kinds of states that are still outstanding, his financial advantage, his delegate lead--and the fact that his message is more attuned to what Democrats are looking for in 2008," said Anita Dunn, a Democratic strategist supporting Obama. But, she added pointedly: "You can't count her out until she has conceded."

The Democratic confusion last night and early this morning was the mirror image of the emerging GOP clarity , as yesterday's contests finally pushed McCain over the 1,191-delegate threshold he needs to claim the Republican nomination. The Arizona senator will lunch at the White House today before appearing with President Bush in the Rose Garden for a formal, if not unexpected, endorsement.

McCain will undoubtedly be polite, and Bush's support will help his rival for the 2000 GOP nomination consolidate the support of his party. But many GOP strategists believe McCain will quickly move to stake out his independence from the unpopular president.Disarray on the Democratic side will play to McCain's advantage, according to analysts in both parties. Indeed, many GOP elected officials and operatives say they are beginning to feel more hopeful about the party's prospects, after having written them off only a few months ago because of the war in Iraq and the souring economy.

The Democratic race "is now a muddle," said Ed Rogers, a GOP lobbyist and former political director in the administration of former President George H.W. Bush. "The campaign is going to get down in the gutter where it belongs."

With Pennsylvania's April 22 primary a seemingly endless 48 days away, Rogers said, "There's going to be no pressure for [Clinton] to get out, and they are going to think they won by going negative." As a result, he said, McCain will have "a long time . . . to go through the process of reintroducing himself and playing up his bio."

Some Democrats admitted they were worried. "He has the advantage of being able to organize early for the general election," said Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "The Democratic race could go on for a few more weeks without doing significant damage. But if it were unsettled into June or, God forbid, into the general election, that would be a significant advantage for McCain."

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