washingtonpost.com
Eight Questions About Today's Primaries
By Dan Balz

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."

After today, which state will be most important to determining the Democratic contest?

4. This is a trick question. The right answer is probably that "none" is that critical. After today, the states line up in predictable fashion: Clinton should easily win West Virginia in May 13, Kentucky on May 20 and Puerto Rico on June. 1. Obama is heavily favored in Oregon on May 20 and Montana and South Dakota on June 3.

After today, there will be only 217 pledged delegates up for grabs. The final six contests will have little effect on the delegate count, and only by running up huge margins in her best states could Clinton overcome Obama's lead in the popular vote in the states that held sanctioned events.

The real answer to this question is one cited by a number of strategists: Michigan and Florida. The seating of those delegations remains unresolved, and Clinton continues to press for a solution that would give her a boost in the delegate count. The most important date on the calendar after today could be May 31, when the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee meets to consider the matter.

Is there a person remaining whose endorsement could make a difference in the race?

5. Al Gore, if he were to decide to get involved. But he hasn't given any indication that he's prepared to step out of his role as advocate for the planet and back into the grubby world of intraparty politics.

If Gore, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid went together, that would be even more significant. That seems even less likely. The other big fish left in the pond is John Edwards, who was courted hard immediately after he got out of the race. Obama and Clinton paid tribute to him at last Friday's Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Raleigh, N.C., vowing to carry on his fight to eradicate poverty (Clinton said she would appoint a Cabinet-level official to lead the effort). That showed that they both still think he might yet make an endorsement.

If Obama wins the nomination, can he win working-class white voters in November?

6. Every Democratic and Republican strategist will be looking at the exit polls tonight for clues. Obama has struggled to win working-class white voters in virtually every state this year. But does that mean he can't do well with them in November if he is the nominee?

Strategists divide this question into two parts: Can Obama win back working-class voters who participated in the Democratic primaries, and can Obama win among the broader working-class white electorate?

"Senator Obama will win Democratic working-class voters in November," wrote Democrat Bill Carrick. "But independent working-class voters will be a major battleground between Obama and McCain in November."

Another Democratic strategist, Ron Klain, wrote: "The fact that he is losing some of these votes to Clinton is no sign at all about their preference in the fall." Optimistic Democrats believe that if Obama is their nominee, he can draw a very sharp contrast on economic issues with McCain and, in the end, will draw more than enough support from working-class whites to win the election. "Obama will measure up quite well against John McCain," one Democrat predicted.

But Republican Neil Newhouse offered a contrary view, one shared by others in his party, who say the non-primary working-class electorate will present serious problems for Obama.

"Not as long as there is any surviving videotape of Rev. Wright's comments," he wrote. "Clearly Obama's candidacy and image have been damaged by the Wright and 'cling' remarks. Once his liberal issue positions are really litigated, these votes are going to be a very difficult audience for Obama.

If Clinton wins the nomination, will black voters support the Democratic ticket?

7. This is a much bigger worry among Democrats than Obama's potential problem with working-class white voters. As one Democrat sympathetic to Clinton wrote: "If she names Obama [as her running mate], yes. If not, no. There will be a reckoning."

The worst-case scenario, painted by a Democrat, is a collapse of the party's coalition, with both African Americans and young people demoralized by Obama's failure to win the nomination.

Other strategists -- Republican and Democratic -- see a more likely scenario of Clinton winning a huge percentage of the African American vote, but turnout depressed enough that it could potentially cost the Democrats states such as Ohio or Missouri.

As one Democratic strategist put it, "Depends on the meaning of the word 'enthusiastic.' " The real question is under what circumstances Clinton wins the nomination, and whether her victory would be seen as trampling on the will of the voters who participated in the primaries and caucuses. Democratic pollster offered an equivocal "yes" to this question. "As long as people are convinced the process was fair and the loser stands clearly and unambiguously with the winner."

Who do Republican leaders see as the tougher opponent -- Obama or Clinton?

8. No official word from the McCain campaign, although his staffers do respond rather quickly whenever Obama says anything critical about their candidate. That may show only that they expect Obama to be the Democratic nominee.

From the world of Republican strategists, there is no consensus. That, obviously, is a shift from two months ago, when almost every one of them would have said Obama. It's been noted here before that Obama's string of problems has caused Republicans to reevaluate him -- and Clinton's resilience has reminded them that, despite her polarizing nature, she is a tough candidate.

"Make no mistake," wrote Todd Harris, a Republican strategist who worked for Fred Thompson's campaign. "Both would be tough." Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster, said Obama would be tougher, in part because he thinks the press will treat him kindly. But he said many Republicans would prefer to run against Obama because they see him as untested.

A Republican familiar with the McCain team put it this way: "I think the McCain campaign sees Obama as the superior campaigner, but they fear HRC more." But another GOP strategist wrote, "I think Obama's more difficult because of the change agent vs. the septuagenarian contrast."

GOP strategist Mike Murphy, a past adviser to and still friend of McCain, offered this perspective: "Now most would say Clinton, but that is a canard. Ultimately the real opponent is the generic anti-Republican vote. In the end it will be about McCain. If he cannot lock the center, he will lose."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company