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Waiting for the Game to Change

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, May 7, 2008

RALEIGH, N.C. The Democrats are putting the "stale" in stalemate.

Barack Obama needed to "close the deal" by beating Hillary Clinton in Indiana and North Carolina. Clinton needed a "game-changer" so that she could have a viable path to the presidential nomination.

But no deal closed and no game changed Tuesday night.

Obama's big win in North Carolina, coupled with Clinton's squeaker in Indiana, adds to a sense that his nomination is inevitable. But the split decision also gave Clinton a reason to remain in the race and force the party's superdelegates to decide it.

In other words, there is no exit plan. We're going to West Virginia! And we're going to Oregon and Kentucky! And we're going to Puerto Rico and Montana and South Dakota! Yeeaarrgghh!

"There were those who were saying that North Carolina would be a game-changer in this election, but today what North Carolina decided is that the only game that needs changing is the one in Washington, D.C.," Obama told his supporters here at North Carolina State University on Tuesday night. But in the next breath, he acknowledged that he hadn't closed the deal, either. "I want to start by congratulating Senator Clinton on what appears to be her victory in the great state of Indiana," he added, to boos from the crowd.

Then he said something nobody could dispute: "This has been one of the longest, most closely fought contests in American history."

And it's not over yet. Just after 5 p.m. Tuesday, the early exit polls -- showing a commanding advantage for Obama in North Carolina and a smaller but clear edge for Clinton in Indiana -- meant that there would be no clean sweep. And the primary-night suspense fizzled. Here at Obama's victory party at North Carolina State University, reporters greeted the early returns by tossing a Nerf football.

The crowd had not yet been admitted in the Reynolds Coliseum when the networks called the state for Obama the moment the polls closed at 7:30. Two Obama staffers, watching MSNBC on a jumbo screen in the quiet hall, gave a shout of "Yea!" Television crews ran over to capture the action.

By the time late-night suspense did develop, in the form of uncounted votes in Gary, Ind., Obama was on his way back to Chicago, and the crowd had left the coliseum. Only a few stragglers remained to cheer the TV screen showing Clinton's declining lead in Indiana.

Dreading another inconclusive Tuesday night like this, the pundit class had labored to create a narrative for the Indiana and North Carolina contests. They proposed two competing story lines: Obama would close the deal, or Clinton would change the game.

In both cases, Clinton started the cliche chase. "I mean, why can't he close the deal?" she taunted her front-running rival.

The media joined in. "So, will Obama close the deal on Tuesday?" CNN's Anderson Cooper wanted to know.

"Can Obama close the deal and win both of these things and knock her out?" demanded MSNBC's Chris Matthews.

NBC's Meredith Vieira took the question to Obama. People "are beginning to question, 'Jeez, why doesn't he close the deal?' " she informed him.

As Obama struggled to close the deal, Clinton served up another cliche. "This primary election on Tuesday is a game-changer," she said last week.

The media grabbed the ball and ran with it. NBC's Norah O'Donnell agreed that "tomorrow's outcome could be huge for Hillary Clinton, a game-changer."

But CNN won the game-changing world series.

"Tomorrow is not a game-changer," Anderson Cooper determined.

"It can be a game-changer," argued his guest, Time's Joe Klein. Gloria Borger concurred that "if she does win both, to use her phrase, it is a game-changer."

Cooper was puzzled. "If Obama wins both," he asked, "is that a game-changer, too?"

Cooper was puzzled. "So, Joe, tomorrow, are we likely to actually see any game-changers?"

"God, who knows?" Klein replied.

It fell to the "Today" show's Vieira, again, to ask the candidate. "Will it still be a game-changer to you?" she asked.

"I want it to be a game-changer for the people of North Carolina, Indiana and America," Clinton answered.

It was, perhaps, too much to hope that the game would change. Polls had accurately forecast the Clinton win in Indiana and the Obama victory in North Carolina.

The only thing becoming clear is that the contest had gone on too long. So say 58 percent of Republicans, 56 percent of independents, and fully 67 percent of Democrats, according to a Fox News poll.

That would explain the lack of energy in the Reynolds Coliseum here as the early results came in. The Obama campaign didn't even try to bring out a big crowd; it used just a third of the coliseum here -- the part under the retired jerseys of N.C. State players.

On a balcony outside the coliseum, Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, briefed reporters. "She thought this was going to be a game-changer," he said, his hand tucked in his jacket pocket. "We think this was a big victory here in North Carolina."

Reporters pointed out some problems: Obama had lost the white vote in North Carolina, and he was trailing in Indiana, which he had labeled a "tiebreaker."

"The important thing, folks, is this was not a game-changer in any way, shape or form," Axelrod repeated. But he didn't say a thing about closing the deal.

Inside the coliseum, the crowd of about 2,000 was waiting for Obama, listening to a John Mayer tune, "Waiting on the World to Change." And, without a Clinton or Obama sweep on Tuesday, the wait will go on a bit longer. During the delay, the likely Democratic nominee has piled up liabilities for the general election: shrinking support from white voters, outbursts by his former pastor, and unhelpful remarks about the "bitter" voters who turn to God and guns. Instead of focusing on Republican John McCain, the Democrats are squabbling about the gas tax and the significance of Obama's seven-vote victory in the Guam primary.

Gas, God, guns and Guam? The Democrats really need a game-changer. Or a deal-closer.

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