Democrats' Damaging Brawl

By David S. Broder
Sunday, April 20, 2008

As a rule, presidential elections are not won or lost by what happens in April. But last week, more and more Democratic officeholders and strategists were worrying out loud about the possibility that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are running themselves into trouble with their unending battle for the nomination.

The negativity of the campaigning for Tuesday's Pennsylvania primary is spotlighting issues that can easily be exploited in the general election by Republican John McCain. And the increasingly personal tone of the Clinton-Obama exchanges is draining some of the enthusiasm from Democrats, who have believed for many months that 2008 would be their year for victory.

Even so, according to this month's Post-ABC News poll, there is still no strong demand from grass-roots Democrats for the two senators to end their battle and turn to the challenge posed by McCain.

By a margin of 53 percent to 41 percent, those surveyed said that it is more important that their favorite candidate win, even if the race goes into the summer, than that the race end as soon as possible.

Supporting that finding, by an identical margin, these Democrats said that Clinton should remain in the race even if she suffers an upset loss in Pennsylvania on Tuesday.

By contrast, in conversations Wednesday and Thursday with members of Congress and other Democratic officials, I found few superdelegates who are sanguine about the prospect of seeing the intraparty fight continue until the late-August convention in Denver.

They were reacting in part to Wednesday night's savage ABC News debate, perhaps the nastiest since Clinton and Obama sparred in South Carolina more than two months ago.

Clinton was the aggressor in the Philadelphia tussle, frequently piling on as Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos of ABC rehashed all the recent controversies that have beset Obama -- and added some new charges of their own.

It was a notably uncomfortable performance by the current front-runner, one in which he barely suppressed his irritation with the questions and delivered convoluted explanations or apologies in response.

Many of these issues clearly will be recycled by the Republicans if Obama is the nominee. In potentially the most explosive, Obama's relationship with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., Clinton in effect gave McCain permission to go after Obama. She said that Wright's words, and Obama's varying explanations of his relationship with the pastor, "raise questions in people's minds" and make this "a legitimate area" for discussion. It will take no urging for Republicans to accept her invitation.

But Clinton has her own credibility problems, and they are more severe than her opponent's. Questioned by Stephanopoulos about her fabricated story of dodging sniper fire on a trip to Bosnia, she said she was "embarrassed" by the incident and apologized again.

But that incident fed a growing skepticism about Clinton's candor. In the Post-ABC poll, just 39 percent of all voters said that they now view Clinton as honest and trustworthy.

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