Thursday, April 24, 2008

Keystone Kops

So, as expected, the Pennsylvania primary was anticlimactic. When I told some colleagues that I'm going to Charlotte to cover the North Carolina primary, they asked why I wasn't going to the Keystone State first. My reply: Hillary's going to win Pennsylvania by somewhere between five and nine points, which means nothing will change, so what's the point? The race won't end in Pittsburgh, or Pottstown, or even Punxsutawney. But Clinton's Waterloo could come May 6th...in Waterloo, Indiana. Or Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Because if Obama takes both Indiana and North Carolina (the largest remaining states), the battle really is done. This nomination is firmly in the hands of the superdelegates now, and if Obama can deliver a knockout blow, the remaining undecided ones will flock to him, and put him over the top. If he can't....then Hillary has at least some faint hope.

(By the way, Clinton won Pennsylvania by nine points, not ten, at last count, despite what you keep hearing from most media. I don't think it makes much difference, but I'm a stickler for accuracy. She will end up with a net gain of 10 to 12 delegates.)

The hot phrase of the moment is "closing the deal," as in, Obama can't do it. I must have missed the mass directive instructing all pundits to use those words, but it's just as well, because I think it's off the mark. Obama isn't attracting the white, blue-collar voters, but you know what? He wasn't winning them in January or February either, when he was sweeping one state after another. The only place he beat Clinton among that demographic was in Wisconsin. All that's happened is, the states where Obama had a natural advantage, he won...and the ones where Clinton did, she won. And that's still happening. It's just that we've reached a string of northern industrial states whose electorate breaks nicely for Hillary, so that's slowed Obama's momentum and allowed some worrisome doubt to creep into the minds of nervous Democrats.

The bigger problem for Obama right now is that as the campaign wears on, his luster wears off. He's been dragged right down into the gutter, which is never a good place for golden boys to be. It's hard to position oneself as a fresh voice of change, when you're busy picking off the bits of mud and flinging them back at your opponent. If the Democrats had winner-take-all primaries, Obama's 11-state late-winter run would have locked up the nomination, and his image would have survived intact. Now it's all flying elbows and locking horns, as he tries to hold off Hillary and keep those superdelegates flowing steadily into his column. And meanwhile, the Republicans, and the Clinton camp, have succeeded in raising a lot of questions about Obama, and planting some very dangerous seeds in the voters' minds: he's a radical, with radical friends...he's not one of us...who knows what he really wants to do to this country...why, he may even be French!

Assuming he still gets the nomination, Obama will need to reinvigorate his base: wealthier, better-educated whites, black voters, young people and first-time voters. He will have to generate a massive turnout, to overcome the negative portrayals and Internet rumors that will swing many Americans, who pay only passing attention to facts and details, to John McCain. And if he can't do that, then those battleground states where Clinton has beaten him - Ohio, New Mexico (Florida and Michigan, too, though Obama didn't compete in the "primaries" there) and yes, Pennsylvania - become deeply problematic for the Democrats in November.