A Matchup Starts to Take Shape

The Washington Post - - Letters To The Editor - David S. Broder

Head­ing into Tues­day’s un­prece­dented day of vot­ing in two dozen states, a de­gree of or­der is fi­nally emerg­ing in the dra­matic races for the pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tions of both par­ties.

Pub­lic opin­ion and lead­er­ship sup­port are find­ing their way to the same des­ti­na­tions, point­ing to a clear fa­vorite and a sin­gle vi­able al­ter­na­tive in each race.

John McCain has the eas­i­est path re­main­ing to the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion, with Mitt Rom­ney need­ing some kind of dra­matic break­through Tues­day to keep his hopes of an up­set alive.

On the Demo­cratic side, the bat­tle is closer, but the ad­van­tage has shifted back to Barack Obama — thanks to a grow­ing but largely un­re­markedupon ten­dency among Demo­cratic lead­ers to re­ject Hil­lary Clin­ton and her hus­band, the for­mer pres­i­dent.

The New York sen­a­tor could still emerge from the “Tsunami Tues­day” vot­ing with the over­all lead in del­e­gates, but she is un­likely to come close to clinch­ing the nom­i­na­tion. And the longer the race goes on, the bet­ter the chances Obama will pre­vail as more Demo­cratic elected of­fi­cials and can­di­dates come to view him as the bet­ter bet to de­feat McCain in Novem­ber.

As the race has moved from con­tests in small states such as Iowa and New Hamp­shire to the na­tional di­men­sion of Tues­day’s vot­ing, the role of en­dorse­ments and lead­er­ship tes­ti­mo­ni­als has in­creased. The can­di­dates sim­ply lack the time and re­sources to make per­sonal ap­peals to very many vot­ers.

Had McCain not in­vested such per­sonal time in New Hamp­shire, hold­ing more than 100 town meet­ings where he ar­gued for the cor­rect­ness of his views on the Iraq war, he could not have re­versed the sum­mer­time dis­as­ter that over­took his cam­paign, when he ran out of money and lost most of his se­nior staff.

But af­ter turn­ing back Rom­ney in New Hamp­shire, the Ari­zona sen­a­tor picked up sig­nif­i­cant es­tab­lish­ment back­ing in South Carolina and Florida — hard-core Repub­li­can states where he had to show his cre­den­tials. He cam­paigned in South Carolina flanked by Sen. Tom Coburn and for­mer rep­re­sen­ta­tive Jack Kemp, icons of so­cial and fis­cal con­ser­vatism, and won Florida thanks to last­minute en­dorse­ments from Gov. Char­lie Crist and Sen. Mel Martinez.

Now, with the de­feated Rudy Gi­u­liani adding his voice to the cho­rus of McCain en­dorse­ments, and with Mike Huck­abee re­main­ing in the race to chal­lenge Rom­ney from the re­li­gious right, McCain ap­pears poised to lock up the nom­i­na­tion.

Un­elected con­ser­va­tive ide­o­logues — such as Rush Lim­baugh and Ge­orge F. Will — can mut­ter in frus­tra­tion, but Repub­li­can politi­cians rec­og­nize what was writ­ten here as long ago as last Dec. 2: “If the Repub­li­can Party re­ally wanted to hold on to the White House in 2009 . . . it would grit its teeth, swal­low its doubts and nom­i­nate a ticket of John McCain for pres­i­dent and Mike Huck­abee for vice pres­i­dent — and pres­i­dent-in-wait­ing.”

The Demo­cratic race re­mains harder to hand­i­cap, in part be­cause Clin­ton has al­ready demon­strated her re­silience by fight­ing up­hill bat­tles to pre­vail in New Hamp­shire and Ne­vada and be­cause she re­tains for­mi­da­ble al­liances and or­ga­ni­za­tional strengths.

But in the past two weeks, there has been a re­mark­able shift of es­tab­lish­ment opin­ion against her and against the prospect of plac­ing the party’s 2008 chances in the hands of her hus­band, Bill Clin­ton.

The promi­nence of his role in New Hamp­shire and South Carolina, and the mean-spirit­ed­ness of his at­tacks on Obama, stunned many Democrats. Clin­ton’s be­hav­ior un­der­lined the warn­ing raised in this col­umn be­fore Iowa, by a prom­i­nent vet­eran of the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion, that the prospect of two pres­i­dents both named Clin­ton shar­ing a sin­gle White House would be a huge prob­lem for the Democrats in Novem­ber if Hil­lary Clin­ton is the nom­i­nee.

The Clin­tons’ neg­a­tives have brought much sup­port to Obama, most no­tably that of Ted Kennedy, the most pres­ti­gious fig­ure in the Demo­cratic es­tab­lish­ment in Wash­ing­ton. But it is also Obama’s own ap­peal that is be­ing talked about across the coun­try, from Mas­sachusetts to Ari­zona, by the younger gen­er­a­tion of gov­er­nors, sen­a­tors and rep­re­sen­ta­tives who share with him an ea­ger­ness to “turn the page” on the bat­tles of the past.

Obama is not in­evitable, but the longer the race con­tin­ues, the greater that hunger will be. And the grow­ing recog­ni­tion of McCain’s ap­peal to in­de­pen­dents also works in Obama’s fa­vor.

david­broder@wash­post.com

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