The Democrats, Wrestling To Negotiate An Endgame

By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Now what?

Barack Obama, as expected, won the Mississippi Democratic primary yesterday, his second straight victory in four days, his 29th overall, another tiny notch in his delegate lead over rival Hillary Clinton. But Mississippi clarified nothing. That's because the Democratic presidential race is in a byzantine state beyond clarification.

To make it plain: The Democrats are stuck in their own mud. They have no scripted ending to this titanic battle, no scenario ready for wide embrace. Or any embrace. Or even a handshake. On one level, the historic competition between Obama and Clinton has energized the party, boosted primary turnouts, spawned legions of new voters and campaign volunteers. But on the let's-get-real level, Democrats have problems even a blind man can see. Their primaries and caucuses have revealed labor splits, racial and ethnic splits, gender splits, age and class splits, and a rivalry that is getting nastier by the day.

"It's a train wreck," says John Edgell, a Democratic operative not involved in either campaign. "Either way, you're going to tick off half the base."

The judges waiting in the wings are 796 party insiders unaffectionately known as superdelegates. "There's no way that superdelegates will not decide it," says Edgell, who has been meticulously tracking superdelegate endorsements and compiling them on a spreadsheet. As of yesterday, his count was 269 for Clinton, 220 for Obama. [Overall, Obama leads Clinton in total delegates, 1,585 to 1,473, according to the Associated Press.]

We are now in the strange season of Democratic pretense -- pretend that everything will work out smoothly even though you suspect that everything won't. "The Democratic Party is going to have gum on its shoes that it can't get off," says Edgell, a former veteran congressional staffer. "There are going to be bruises that will last through November."

Clearly, it is also the season of rampant, mixed-use metaphor. If ever there was a moment to summon the analogies of struggle, dilemma, tactical warfare and careful negotiation, that moment is now. So it might be prudent to step back from politics and look for clues to a Democratic resolution elsewhere: in chess, magic, poker, mathematics, gang intervention, sports handicapping, Middle East peace negotiation, marriage. The list is endless.

As realms go, it's hard to beat boxing. Obama had the champ on the ropes after the first round in Iowa but couldn't finish her off in New Hampshire. Bloodied, Clinton fought back gamely and gained some momentum heading into Super Tuesday. Both candidates landed solid blows there. But then Obama pummeled the champ for 11 straight rounds, and it looked like she was just hanging on, ripe for a knockout. But just as the scribes were filing their stories of the champ's demise, she waged another comeback, winning three of four rounds on March 4. (Needless to say, this is a loooong fight). All of a sudden, the questions were: Does the challenger have a glass jaw? Does the champ have enough time to overcome the challenger's lead on points?

"This has got a heavyweight-fight tension," says Angelo Dundee, the great trainer of such world champions as Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard. "The one with the toughest defense will win it," he predicts. "The other guy gets worn out. That's what Muhammad did against George Foreman in Zaire."

Campaigning in Ohio and Texas, Clinton became much more aggressive, relentlessly pressuring Obama. "Great fighters are able to change gears," says Dundee, "and that's been the history of boxing, being able to switch tempos." But he cautions -- and this would apply to Clinton's so-called kitchen-sink strategy: It's not how many punches you throw. "A guy can throw a thousand punches, but only half of them are effective."

To Obama, Dundee would say: "You fight your fight; you don't fight their fight."

"This situation is very interesting," he says. "Only in America, right?"

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