By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
What will it take to be declared the winner in Pennsylvania today?
1. Conventional wisdom has taken such a beating in this campaign that setting expectations for today's primary continues to confound the experts. The only thing everyone can agree on is that, given the makeup of Pennsylvania -- an older population with a significant blue-collar constituency and a sizable proportion of Roman Catholics -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton should win the popular vote. But as Democrat Matt Bennett put it, the candidates are like publicly -traded companies that need to hit an earnings target to lift their stock price.
But just what are the targets? Some say Clinton needs to win by 10 points -- which was her margin in Ohio last month. Others say eight points. Some say, given the amount of money Sen. Barack Obama is spending on television ads, anything over five points would be a respectable victory for Clinton. Staying within five points would give Obama the opportunity to assert that he overcame a state whose demographics tilted heavily to Clinton.
But the margin in the popular vote ultimately will be secondary to how Pennsylvania affects the battle for pledged delegates. Pennsylvania is the biggest remaining prize on the calendar, with 158 pledged delegates. Clinton badly needs to make up ground in the delegate fight and, given the way they're distributed, that could be difficult.
In the words of one Democratic strategist, the popular vote margin is a "feel-good barometer that may play out over a few days and longer if there is a big win, but then we will be on to the next contests. Ultimately, the second indicator [delegates] is more important and will have a longer effect because it is still the criteria we use to select a nominee."
Has the campaign weakened Obama or Clinton more for the general election?
2. Many Democrats argue that, when compared with where they stood at the start of the nomination battle in early 2007, Obama and Clinton have become stronger and more effective candidates. Clinton has demonstrated resilience, doggedness and grit in the face of continued adversity. Obama began as a totally untested candidate and has run a remarkably effective campaign that has generated passion and energy.
But as Pennsylvanians vote today, the candidates are showing the wear and tear of this long and grueling process. Clinton's negative ratings have risen dramatically over the past few months. She began with doubts about her credibility and trustworthiness, which have only intensified. In last week's Post-ABC News poll, her unfavorable rating was higher than it has ever been.
Obama also looks weaker than he did when he was running the table in late February with big victories in such places as Virginia, Wisconsin and some smaller-state caucuses. Since then he has been beset by one controversy after another and, while he handled some of them effectively -- his speech on race being the prime example -- there is no question that Republicans see him as more vulnerable than they did before.
A Democratic strategist summed up the candidates this way: "Either can win the general election, but anybody who thought Democrats would waltz into the White House this fall was sadly mistaken."
What is Obama's biggest general-election vulnerability?
3. Controversies over the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Obama's comments about why small-town Americans are "bitter" and "cling" to religion and guns, and the candidate's liberal policy views have created a mixture that gives Republicans hope that they can portray Obama as out of touch with heartland America.
One Republican described Obama's weakness as elitism. Another called it an "out-of-the-mainstream view of the world," and a third described his problem as a liberal-cultural disconnect of the kind that hurt John Kerry and Michael Dukakis in their elections.
Democrats put these controversies in class terms. They say Obama can gird himself against Republican attacks only if he connects with working-class voters with a strong economic message. "Unfortunately," wrote one Democrat, "hope will not trump the deepening recession as we go into the fall."
That's why Democratic strategists will be looking at Obama's performance in Pennsylvania. "If the returns from cities like Erie and Cresson indicate he still hasn't closed the sale with blue-collar voters, that would be a huge vulnerability for him," wrote Rick Sloan, communications director for the International Association of Machinists, which has endorsed Clinton.
Has Bill Clinton helped or hurt his wife's candidacy?
4. As one strategist put it, if Clinton were just an extremely bright senator from New York whose husband had not been president, she probably wouldn't even be in the race -- and certainly would not have started out as the prohibitive front-runner. He helped with fundraising, with providing a political network and with giving his wife the experience of operating in the White House for eight years.
"So in the largest sense, Bill Clinton has been of enormous help," the strategist wrote.
But increasingly there are those in the party who say Hillary Clinton has been weakened by the performance of her husband. "We all may have underestimated the depth of 'Clinton fatigue' in American," wrote one Democrat, who added: "Every time he steps up to the plate to defend Senator Clinton, he weakens her."
Some Republicans recognize the strength Bill Clinton has brought to his wife's campaign, but as strategist Mike Murphy put it, "He's yesterday in a change election and a distraction to her independent identity."
What is the most important remaining contest after Pennsylvania?
5. Indiana. It is the place where Obama, almost regardless of what happens today in Pennsylvania, could bring the long Democratic contest to a close.
Democratic pollster Mark Mellman wryly noted that the most important upcoming contest is "the one that has an unexpected outcome." In virtually all the other remaining states, either Obama or Clinton is clearly favored. Not so in the Hoosier State, whose primary is on May 6.
That same day, Obama is favored to win in North Carolina. If he manages to carry both states, the pressure on Clinton to quit the race, or certainly to signal that the competition is over, will be enormous. Of course, if Clinton were to win Indiana and pull off a victory in the Tar Heel State, then North Carolina would be seen as the state that changed the race.
Will Democratic superdelegates coalesce, or could this go to the convention?
6. Republican Ben Ginsberg wrote: "The superdelegates I know (and for some reason they seem unburdened talking to a Republican) want a way out. So they're looking for a win by either that's enough to give them cover."
That's a view that appears to be gathering steam. Superdelegates will decide the nomination, but they prefer not to be decisive in the outcome. That means they'd like to see this end sooner, although the delegate math works against that happening. Short of an Obama victory today or twin victories on May 6, the nomination battle will continue through the end of the primary season in early June.
But the prospects for a convention battle appear smaller than they might have a month ago. Democratic strategists are increasingly confident that, once the primaries end, the superdelegates will quickly coalesce around the candidate with the lead in delegates and popular vote.
"Unless Obama collapses between now and then, I believe they will move quickly after the voting is done in June, and move towards him," wrote Democratic strategist Tad Devine. "That will be the third wave of superdelegate movement, and whoever wins the third wave will win the nomination. This fight will not go to the convention."
Could there still be a Democratic dream ticket?
7. When Clinton first started talking publicly about this, she was seen as audacious -- a trailing candidate suggesting that the front-runner take the vice presidential nomination. Now there are some Democrats who now believe Clinton may be open to the possibility of running on a ticket as Obama's vice presidential nominee.
But the prospect that once thrilled many Democrats now appears less appealing to top strategists. That dream, wrote one Democrat, disappeared "somewhere along the road from Akron to Altoona." The two campaign staffs don't like one another at this point and by the time this ends, given the escalation of attacks the past few days, relations could be even worse. Mark Kornblau, who was traveling press secretary for John Edwards, called an Obama-Clinton ticket "a nightmare" for the party. Another Democrat said putting Clinton on an Obama ticket would rob the senator from Illinois of his "change" message. Others said any deal over a dream ticket would be complicated by the role of Bill Clinton.
"Obama and Clinton could still run together -- stranger things have happened in American politics," a fourth Democrat wrote. "But I'm not sure I would call that the 'dream ticket.' At this point the dream ticket would likely have the name Gore at the top."
Has John McCain used this period effectively to get ready for the general election?
8. McCain has had the general- election field largely to himself the past month. He has effectively consolidated the party establishment and tamped down talk that the base doesn't like him (although he may not have solved that problem). He has done a biographical tour, embarked yesterday on a campaign swing to show his openness to minority voters, and has tackled economic issues.
Republicans are cautiously optimistic that McCain's campaign is doing what it should. They say he is wisely making organizational changes for the fall, that his economic message has solidified the party's base and that he has appeared as a grown-up amid squabbling by Democrats.
"He knows that his key to victory is building a coalition on top of a Republican base that includes conservative Democrats and Independents who are drawn to his bipartisan credentials," wrote Kevin Madden, who was press secretary in Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.
Democrats think he is squandering this period. If he loses, they say, he will regret not putting more distance between himself and President Bush now and not taking over center ground more aggressively before Obama or Clinton can move back to the middle after their left-leaning nomination battle.
Privately, a number of Republicans agree. Some fear that neither McCain nor the Republican National Committee is doing enough to overcome the Democrats' energy and financial resources, and look good now primarily because Obama and Clinton are preoccupied with each other.
"After their race is over, their winner will get a bump in the polls," a GOP strategist wrote. "The McCain campaign's ability to respond to that will be their first real test of the general."