The Democrats' Worst Nightmare

Campaign signs outside the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia before last week's Democratic presidential debate there.
Campaign signs outside the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia before last week's Democratic presidential debate there. (By Carolyn Kaster -- Assocated Press)
By David S. Broder
Thursday, April 24, 2008

For battle-weary Democrats, the big news out of Pennsylvania is pretty simple: Their nightmare continues.

In the seven weeks between the Texas and Ohio primaries in early March and Tuesday's balloting in Pennsylvania, the tone of both Barack Obama's and Hillary Clinton's campaigns became markedly more negative, and both candidates displayed new vulnerabilities that John McCain can easily exploit.

The task of deciding which of those two exciting, precedent-breaking but seriously flawed contenders would give the Democrats the best chance of reclaiming the White House looks ever harder.

Despite a relatively narrow loss Tuesday in the delegate fight in the largest prize since Ohio and Texas, Obama is likely to be leading in both popular votes and convention delegates when the last primary results are counted June 3. But it is almost certain that he will be short of the number needed for nomination, leaving the final choice to the almost 800 superdelegates -- elected officials and party leaders.

And that is where trouble looms. Until now, Democrats have been congratulating themselves on a contest that has attracted millions of new voters. Many had become disillusioned with politics. Many were independents or converted Republicans. It seemed to bode well for November.

But now all the worried Democrats can see are more and more first-time voters who will be frustrated and angry if their candidate is counted out in a process they neither sanctioned nor really understand.

For Clinton to win, the superdelegates would have to overrule the millions of voters who have flocked to Obama, including thousands of young people and African Americans, to whom he represents a fresh hope for the future.

But as political pros, many of whom will be on the November ballot themselves, the superdelegates cannot ignore what Clinton achieved in winning such major electoral prizes as California, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Texas and now Pennsylvania.

Obama's inability to win any of the major states except his home base, Illinois, and Georgia, where he could count on the black vote in Atlanta, is worrisome enough. His failure to mobilize and deliver the votes of blue-collar, middle- and lower-income white families that are the backbone of the traditional Democratic Party has to be even more concerning to the superdelegates, as are the gaffes that have begun to mar Obama's personal performance.

In weeks of struggle that he could have devoted to his uphill fight in Pennsylvania, Obama was unable to put to rest the controversies over his relationship with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and his own misguided effort to offer an explanation of what he called "bitter" rural Pennsylvanians finding solace in religion, rifles and immigrant-bashing.

How many votes that cost him on Tuesday is uncertain, but it clearly raised doubts about his penchant for distracting issues.

Yet, in pointing to those vulnerabilities in her rival, Clinton has heightened the most obvious liability she would carry into a fight against McCain. In an age of deep cynicism about politicians of both parties, McCain is the rare exception who is not assumed to be willing to sacrifice personal credibility to prevail in any contest.

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