Worried Dems wish for 'dream team'

What are the odds Democrats will field a "dream team ticket" with Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton combining forces?

London bookmaker Ladbrokes is taking bets at 8-1, but leading Democratic insiders aren't ready to put down their money — yet.

The conundrum: The need for a coalition ticket that could mend the party's divisions becomes more urgent as the primary battle stretches on and takes a harsher tone. Yet as their fight gets fiercer, it becomes harder to imagine the two ever getting together.

"It ain't a match made in heaven anymore," says Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist who ran Al Gore's 2000 campaign, noting increasingly bitter statements made in recent weeks by each campaign's staff and supporters toward the other. Monday's back-and-forth centered on charges of McCarthyism and "gutter politics."

Growing alarm among some Democrats that the rancor could squander what had seemed like a near-certain win in November makes them yearn for a ticket with both Obama and Clinton, in either order. A nomination contest that continues to the August convention could split the party in two just as the general election begins in earnest.

"Nastier things have been said in other primaries," says Matt Bennett, a veteran of retired general Wesley Clark's 2004 presidential bid and co-founder of a think tank called Third Way. "The difference is there's something that is truly at risk here — this incredible excitement that both candidates have generated. My concern is the level of acrimony could rise to such a point that the people both candidates are bringing out could become disillusioned and stay home in the fall."

Bennett and other Democratic analysts worry that voters under 30, energized to turn out for Obama in record numbers in this year's primaries, could tune out if he isn't nominated. While African-American voters who now support Obama by nearly 9-to-1 aren't likely to support the Republican candidate, some might choose not to vote unless the Illinois senator leads the ticket.

And white women over 50 who are part of Clinton's base — and among the nation's most reliable voters — could become disenchanted with the Democratic Party if she doesn't prevail.

"I'm starting to worry," Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, an adviser to John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election, writes in The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper. "I believe Democrats are exquisitely positioned to win the White House in 2008. The only thing that could defeat us is us, and it feels like we just might."

Party harmony already has taken a hit. In a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken March 14-16, 30% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents called an Obama-Clinton ticket their "first choice," and a similar number said that of a Clinton-Obama ticket.

However, one in four said an Obama-Clinton ticket was "not acceptable." Another one in four ruled out a Clinton-Obama ticket.

Voters were most resistant to the idea of having the candidate they support accept the No. 2 slot. A third of Obama supporters rejected a Clinton-Obama ticket, and a third of Clinton supporters rejected an Obama-Clinton ticket.

"The fact is you've got a very close race … and people on both sides are getting more dug in with their particular candidate," says Leon Panetta, a former California congressman and White House chief of staff for Bill Clinton. "That raises the potential that whoever gets the nomination, the other candidate will feel like he or she has been robbed."

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