Just When You Think They Might Be Out, They Get Pulled Back In

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank teams with washingtonpost.com's Akira Hakuta to provide a behind-the-scenes look at government proceedings in Washington.
By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Somebody, please make it stop.

It's primary night -- again. Barack Obama is on the verge of eliminating Hillary Clinton to win the Democratic presidential nomination -- again. And Clinton -- her campaign broke and written off by the pundits -- wins. Again.

This time it's Pennsylvania -- home of Punxsutawney Phil, the rodent made famous by the movie "Groundhog Day," in which Bill Murray is forced to relive the same day, over and over. So it is with the Democratic Party in this never-ending campaign season.

"Some counted me out and said to drop out," the victorious Clinton declared here Tuesday night, in the latest iteration of her comeback-kid speech. "But the American people don't quit. And they deserve a president who doesn't quit, either."

On other Tuesday nights through the winter and spring, Democrats waited to see whether Obama would finally put it away -- in New Hampshire, in California and the other Super Tuesday states, and then in Ohio and Texas. Each time, Clinton narrowly survived. This time, the candidates had nearly two months to persuade Pennsylvania voters to deliver a definitive result -- and again the race was left in limbo.

With history repeating itself as farce, the exhausted reporters covering the Democratic seesaw decided to take matters into their own hands. Instead of accepting a Clinton win, the media announced in advance that, to be declared the victor, she had to beat a point spread -- a point spread determined by, well, the media.

"If Clinton wins by more than 10 points," decreed CNN's Bill Schneider, "her campaign will have new momentum and she will soldier on."

"At least 10 percentage points," the Los Angeles Times concurred, citing unnamed superdelegates.

Even foreigners wanted in on the game. Britain's Guardian newspaper said Clinton "needs to win by a margin of 10 percent or more."

Dan Balz, The Post's magnanimous chief political writer, suggested alternatives. "Some say Clinton needs to win by 10 points," he wrote. "Others say eight points. "Some say . . . anything over five points would be a respectable victory."

Clearly, setting the spread is not a science -- but there is some justification for it. Before Tuesday, Clinton trailed Obama in the popular vote, in delegates won and in states won -- and it will be difficult for her to persuade the party's superdelegates to make her the Democratic nominee if she can't win one of those categories. Even the easiest of those hurdles, a deficit of 700,000 in the popular vote, can't be erased without lopsided wins here and in the remaining primary states.

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