Eight Questions About Today's Primaries

Sen. Barack Obama won North Carolina's presidential primary by a wide margin Tuesday, while Sen. Hillary Clinton narrowly won in Indiana.
Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Has Obama put the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy behind him?

1. Barack Obama dealt forcefully with the issue last Tuesday, breaking with his former pastor and denouncing his words in strong language. Many Democrats think he's done the best he can for now, and even prominent Clinton supporters say they doubt that the relationship between Obama and the minister will have much impact on Democratic voters.

Some Democrats think this is now largely a media-driven story, though a few party strategists say the controversy will hurt Obama today in Indiana and North Carolina. And there is near-universal agreement among strategists in both parties that, if Obama emerges as the Democratic nominee, the Wright issue will continue to dog him through the November election. "This story will continue to drip and seep into the electorate," one Democrat noted. Another said that "all bets are off if the reverend decides to go on another press tour." Republicans were adamant that Obama will have to deal with the Wright fallout through the rest of his campaign. They argue that his handling of the controversy has raised questions about his judgment and veracity. But they predicted, and Democrats agreed, that John McCain and the Republican National Committee will try to stay away from the story, though other groups -- whether state parties, as happened in North Carolina last week, or independent groups -- will put it into the laps of voters. One GOP strategist, however, offered this warning: "The chance that such an attack could backfire, though, seems to be relatively high."

Will the gas tax holiday proposal help or hurt Clinton?

2. Rarely have the two campaigns disagreed so fundamentally on both the policy and the politics of an issue as on Hillary Clinton's proposal for a gas tax holiday this summer.

The dispute has now become a metaphor for the contrasting messages and strategies of the candidates. For Obama, the debate gives him a fresh example of the kind of politics he's determined to change. He sees Clinton's proposal as pandering to the voters with a proposal that would have no real impact on their pocketbooks. For Clinton, the gas tax holiday is part of a populist appeal to working-class voters and a new opportunity to put herself on their side against the big corporations.

So, will it help Clinton? Kevin Madden, who was Mitt Romney's press secretary, put it nicely. "Helps," he wrote. "Clinton is at her best when she is standing on the tree stump talking tough with a script full of economic populism. It's easy for us to forget that the everyday voter is not an economist."

Economists, of course, deeply dislike the proposal. But as a Democratic strategist noted: "Obama is absolutely right as a matter of economic policy. And informed elites understand that. . . . But informed elites are already with Obama. Clinton is appealing to the average American voter -- and to them, getting a break and sticking it to the oil companies sounds like common sense."

Many strategists agreed with this view -- that whatever the economic merits, Clinton's ability to use the issue to draw a contrast with Obama that puts her seemingly on the side of average workers is helpful politically. As one Democrat sympathetic to Clinton wrote, "[I] don't understand why Obama decided this was the time to be responsible."

But some Democratic strategists say the proposal could backfire with superdelegates, who may see it as another example of the Clintons' penchant for pandering, triangulation and saying whatever it takes to win.

The most counterintuitive analysis came from two Democrats, both of whom said Clinton's decision to force the issue to the forefront of the campaign helped take the Rev. Wright off the front pages and therefore, ultimately, was a gift to Obama.

Will a Clinton win in either contest guarantee that the race will go to the convention?

3. Clinton needs at least one victory today to keep alive a rationale to stay in the race. Obama could effectively shut down the nomination battle by winning in both states, and Clinton has been equivocal about whether she will keep going if she loses both.

A Clinton victory in Indiana, where she has the best opportunity to defeat Obama today, only means the campaign is almost certain to continue through the last primaries on June 3. At that point, Obama still would have the advantage, because he is virtually guaranteed to maintain his lead among pledged delegates, and he would push hard to lock down enough of the uncommitted superdelegates to secure the nomination. But North Carolina holds the potential to shake up the Democratic race. Clinton rightly called it a possible game-changer last week. Simply holding Obama's expected victory down into the single digits will be described by the Clinton forces as a moral victory and could signal continuing problems for Obama among white voters.

If Clinton wins both North Carolina and Indiana, the Democrats will be in for a long and very difficult contest that could go all the way to the convention in August. As Democratic strategist Donnie Fowler put it, "a victory in both for her guarantees a dance in Denver."

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