Will Delegate Duel Hurt Dems?

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton seem set to battle until the summer.


March 6, 2008 — -- It may be the ultimate nightmare for Democrats: Hillary Clinton wins the popular vote, Barack Obama wins the delegate count and the party is wracked with infighting headed into this summer's convention.

That scenario becomes ever more likely as the dueling candidates continue to ratchet up the rhetoric and sling mud, say political pundits and campaign veterans.

While party elders hoped that last night's primaries would show the way to a clear winner, Clinton's wins in Ohio, Texas and Rhode Island only raised more questions and stirred more confusion.

Clinton's rebound raised the hopes of her supporters and she made crucial gains among white male voters, but she still needs to win 59 percent of the delegates in the remaining 12 contests to overtake Obama, according to ABC News estimates.

Obama still leads the delegate count and he's snatching away crucial superdelegates, but the Clintons seem determined to continue the fight to the bitter end.

Which leaves Republican nominee John McCain with plenty of time to raise money, build up support in crucial states and attack both likely opponents.

"Does this go to the convention? Do we have a bloodless Chicago?" asks Bob Shrum, Sen. John Kerry's campaign manager in the 2004 race, referring to the Democratic convention of 1968 in which a bitterly divided party debated over whether to nominate Eugene McCarthy or Hubert Humphrey.

"Do we end up in late June or early July having another primary in Florida?"

Shrum thinks that Obama may have an advantage despite Tuesday's results because the Democratic leadership doesn't want to lose all the new voters that his candidacy has brought into the party.

But don't tell that to the Clintons.

"One thing that is clear is that unless there is some decisive moment in the next few months, the Clinton campaign and President [Bill] Clinton are going to fight until the last dog dies," says Shrum.

Indeed, Hillary Clinton forcefully emphasized her claim to the nomination in her victory speech last night. "If we want a Democratic president, we need a Democratic nominee who can win the battleground states, just like Ohio," she said.

The ensuing fight could hurt the party.

"One danger is that these two candidates will bloody each other so much that they'll probably be weakened for November," says Bruce Schulman, professor of political history at Boston University.

"Also, there's a concern that there won't be time for the party to get behind the nominee and get a vice president and all the party-building activity that they want to do. And there's a real danger that the campaign will get openly more and more negative."

Schulman agrees that Obama may have an advantage in that the superdelegates may support him to avoid alienating his black supporters.

"If there is any perception that the party leadership has stolen the election from Obama for Clinton, then you have to think that a lot of black voters will be put off and not turn out to vote despite the Clintons' historic success with African-American voters."

Although the fight could continue until June, some believe that it might not necessarily hurt either candidate among voters.

"It could be that they go after each other and it could also be a chance for the Democrats to get their side mobilized," says Tad Devine, a Democratic political consultant who worked on the Gore and Kerry campaigns.

Clinton backer and Democratic superdelegate Senator Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., predicted that the candidates will be able to work out a peaceful solution to a stalemate, raising the possibility that the Florida primary and Michigan caucus will end up counting. The party is not tallying the delegate count from those states as a punishment for the states' pushing up the date of their contests.

"If we don't have either candidate having a majority of delegates before June 7, the candidates together will have to come up with a plan which each buys into ahead of time as to how we determine what's going on in Florida, what's going on in Michigan and what's going on in general," Schumer told reporters Wednesday.

Devine feels that the current crisis is a result of the primary calendar and the way that it was front-loaded.

"It was clear that it would have led to a stalemate, that was an inevitable conclusion," he explains, noting that a longer primary season tends to leave a more balanced playing field.

Of course, under the old primary schedule, there were still plenty of stalemates: The 1972 primary contest between George McGovern and Humphrey lasted until June, the 1976 primary saw Jimmy Carter fending off Morris Udall and Jerry Brown until mid-June, and in 1980 Carter and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., battled through to that summer's convention.

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