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8 Questions That Will Shape Where the Race for the Democratic Presidential Nomination Goes From Here

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 23, 2008

What is the most likely outcome of the dispute over the delegations from Florida and Michigan?

1. The collapse of efforts in Florida and Michigan to conduct do-over primaries makes a negotiated settlement to seat the two delegations the most likely outcome. But the ultimate resolution will have only a marginal impact on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's attempts to narrow the overall delegate count, many Democrats familiar with intraparty rules and credentials battles say.

Tad Devine, one of the architects of the system of proportional distribution of delegates in primaries and caucuses under which the nomination battle has unfolded, predicts that Florida's delegates will be allocated on the basis of the Jan. 15 primary -- meaning a slight advantage for Clinton -- but with just half a vote given to each pledged delegate and a full vote for each superdelegate. Michigan, too, may end up with only a portion of its original delegates counting, but the delegate split could be closer to 50-50.

Negotiation and compromise may be the ideal solution, but any number of Democrats see nothing but more acrimony and conflict ahead. Democrats fear -- and Republicans hope -- that the Michigan and Florida problem will play out all the way to the Denver convention and perhaps remain unresolved until a clash before the Democratic National Committee's Credentials Committee, legal warfare and an ugly floor fight in Denver that would leave all sides bitter and demoralized.

Party leaders in Michigan and Florida, with help from an effective spin operation in the Clinton campaign, have generated considerable media attention with their concerns about disenfranchising voters in two big battleground states. Inside the party, however, there is far less sympathy. The view of party leaders is simple: The two states broke the rules, and to simply seat their delegations now would invite even more calendar chaos in 2012. The controversy continues to be another stain on the process.

What remaining state contests will be most important and why?

2. There are 10 contests remaining -- eight states and two territories. In virtually every one of these contests, Barack Obama or Clinton begins as the favorite. She is favored in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, West Virginia and Puerto Rico. He is favored in North Carolina, Oregon, Guam, Montana and South Dakota. Indiana may be the closest thing left to a tossup, though it tilts slightly to Clinton.

So which are important? The next contest, and the biggest prize left if Florida and Michigan don't vote again, is Pennsylvania on April 22. An Obama victory in Pennsylvania could effectively end the nomination battle, but that's unlikely. His real challenge is to prevent Clinton from running away with the state the way she did in Ohio so he can blunt her argument that she significantly outperforms him in big states that will be critical in the general election.

The May 6 primaries in Indiana and North Carolina have the most potential to change the race, although probably only if one candidate wins both. If Obama were to win Indiana, he could claim to have successfully cracked Clinton's coalition of women and working-class white voters. If Clinton were to carry both, she would gain real momentum, if not necessarily a huge bump in delegates. Finally, a Clinton win in Oregon or an Obama win in Kentucky would be seen as a major upset.

Such outcomes, noted Ron Klain, a Democratic strategist, "would be the primary-season equivalent of breaking service in a tennis match: a big momentum shift and a shift in the balance of power."

What is Clinton's path to the nomination?

3. Clinton needs at least four things to happen. First, she must significantly narrow Obama's lead in the pledged delegate count. Under almost no scenario is there a way for her to overtake Obama in that column, given the rules of proportionality. But by winning the overwhelming share of the last 10 contests, she can begin to cut down the margin and also claim momentum at the end of the race.

Second, she must also finish the primaries ahead of or nearly tied with Obama in the popular vote. Because she cannot take a lead in pledged delegates and because Obama will have won more states by the end of the primaries and caucuses, she will need the popular-vote edge to give uncommitted superdelegates a rationale to deny Obama the nomination.

At this point she is more than 700,000 votes behind -- more than 400,000 if the Florida results (but not those from Michigan) are included. She will need big victories in Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Kentucky and West Virginia to come close. But without new voting in Michigan and Florida, her chances of winning the popular vote are greatly diminished.

Third, Clinton must emerge in national polls as a stronger candidate against John McCain. Clinton has gained ground in recent polls, but the superdelegates will look at the polls in June, not March, before making their decisions.

Finally, Clinton must persuade uncommitted superdelegates to deny the nomination to the candidate who has more pledged delegates. But to side with her would almost certainly offend African Americans, the party's most loyal constituency. How many superdelegates will be prepared for that?

What's not clear is whether Clinton can accomplish all this without a much more negative campaign -- and that could prompt rebukes from party leaders and calls for Democrats to coalesce around Obama.

Has Obama successfully dealt with the controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.?

4. Democrats say his Philadelphia speech last Tuesday may have accomplished what he needed to keep his advantage in the nomination battle. Republicans -- and Democrats -- say that, if he is the nominee, he will need to do more to minimize its potential to harm his chances of winning the White House.

"He has been very successful in both broadening the debate and changing the subject," Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said. "But the Republicans will be bringing it back."

Democratic strategist Steve Murphy said: "The Wright controversy is over in the contest for the nomination. In the general election, Obama will find it necessary to more forcefully renounce Wright's anti-American statements about 9/11."

"In the national press? Yes," a Democratic strategist wrote. "Among blue collar voters, I don't think so. They're not racist but they don't necessarily want to talk about these topics. The speech he gave would be a great speech for a president to give. Unclear to me whether it's a great speech for a candidate to give."

"Not by a long shot," Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said. "A good speech doesn't take the place of Obama's impaired judgment on this issue."

Another Democrat said Obama took the controversy off the front pages but could be vulnerable to the kind of "Swift boat" attack that so badly damaged John Kerry's candidacy four years ago.

Will the nomination battle go all the way to the convention?

5. This is the big question and the big worry inside the Democratic Party, and on this, there is no consensus.

"Deliciously, yes," wrote a Republican who admitted that he was simply enjoying the contest so much he does not want it to end.

"Please, Lord, no," wrote one veteran of presidential campaigns, reflecting the sense of fatigue, exhaustion and fear among Democrats.

Those predicting that it will not go all the way to Denver believe that Democrats collectively will conclude it's too risky to keep the race going.

"The superdelegates will move behind the front-runner in delegates in June and it will end the nomination contest," Democratic strategist Bill Carrick wrote. "Either the superdelegates end it in June or Democrats will self-destruct in August in Denver."

But another Democrat who is partial to Obama said that, unless Obama sweeps the remaining contests, it is "highly unlikely" that Clinton can be pressured to get out of the race in June, even if she trails in pledged delegates.

Democrat Donnie Fowler underscored the consequences of a fight that goes on into the summer. "Suffice it to say that every week that goes by without a nominee is another tick on the clock where the Democratic Party is not fully able to put campaign teams together in the 15 to 20 battleground states," he said. "In the past three elections, state directors have set up shop in May . . . and that's after a two-months process of searching, hiring, and announcing them."

Will Democrats unite after the Obama-Clinton fight ends?

6. The overwhelming desire among Democrats to win back the White House should reunite Obama and Clinton supporters once a nominee emerges, but with every day the fight continues -- and with every attack and counterattack -- the odds diminish. And party leaders know it.

"It depends on the way it ends," said one Democratic strategist who has remained neutral. "If the Clintons spill too much blood on the floor, it will be hard for Obama supporters to forgive and forget, and hundreds of thousands of new voters will be sapped of their energy in this election."

"Absolutely" there will be unity, countered a Democrat who was working for one of the candidates now on the sidelines. "As bitter as most of these campaigns get, they always unite. And, please, this campaign has not been all that bitter."

The Democratic race has not produced the kind of deep ideological divisions that make reuniting especially difficult. This race has been a clash of style and personalities, but many Democrats are hopeful that the huge turnouts in the Democratic primaries reflect not just enthusiasm for Clinton and Obama but a deep desire for change after eight years of President Bush.

Not surprisingly, Republicans already see problems. There are still scars from battles in some of the early states, and with a late-August convention, the nominee will have no time to heal the wounds if the contest has left bitterness in the loser's camp, which seems more likely if Clinton is the nominee.

"It is amazing to watch a party that has so much going for it in this election put it all in jeopardy over this contest," Terry Nelson, a veteran of the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign, said. "But that appears to be the case."

Has McCain succeeded in uniting Republicans behind his bid?

7. If he hasn't, the Democrats and the media have. And Clinton certainly would if she is the nominee. "Republicans are a fall-in-line party, and they've done just that," said Democrat Murphy. "And a little [complaining] from the right wing helps, not hurts, McCain."

Republicans report that the grumbling, even privately, about McCain has begun to subside. Some believe he has more work to do, however, and say his fundraising numbers will help answer how much he has accomplished. But for a candidate who has spent much of his career fighting members of his own party, McCain is doing what he must to bring them around.

Would Clinton or Obama be the stronger foe against McCain?

8. This is the big question that every superdelegate is trying to answer, as are strategists gaming out McCain's prospects in a general election. At this point, there is as much confusion as consensus.

Start with the assessments of Republican strategists. "For the entire campaign I had thought [Obama] would be, but these last few weeks have me rethinking that," noted Tom Rath, a New Hampshire Republican who was in Mitt Romney's camp. "Her resilience and toughness [are] impressing me."

"It's a tossup," Newhouse wrote. "I wasn't looking forward to facing the Obama of two months ago, I'm more encouraged about facing him now, and wonder what the next few months of scrutiny might bring."

"A week ago, I would have said Obama," wrote Nelson, who left as McCain's campaign manager last summer. "Today, I don't know."

Democrats who believe Obama is their best choice cite his message of hope and change, and the energy and enthusiasm it has sparked with a new generation of voters.

They argue that he has more capacity than Clinton to expand the electoral map and to compete in red and purple states more effectively.

They also believe he will provide a more compelling contrast with McCain on issues including age, energy, Iraq and change. "In the end, if this is a big change election, it's just easier for him to claim the mantle of change," Carrick noted.

Those who say Clinton cite her steadiness, her toughness, her resilience and her ability to deliver a strong message on the economy -- a McCain weakness. "She is like a blue-chip company stock price," one strategist said. "Everything is known, and it's all built into the price. So if she's beating McCain now, there's a good degree of certainty she can beat him in the fall."

This debate will continue until the Democratic nominee is known -- and perhaps beyond.

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