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Obama's Path

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The implications of all this are firmly grasped in Obama-land. This week, the campaign inadvertently released a spreadsheet containing a detailed projection of the outcomes of the remaining primaries and caucuses. It predicted that Obama would win nineteen of them, but that he would lose by between four and seven points in Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania. The bottom line? After the final votes had been cast in Puerto Rico on June 7, Obama would emerge with 1,806 delegates and Clinton with 1,789-both a couple hundred short, that is, of the 2,025 necessary to nail down the nomination.

It's possible, to be sure, that the Obama spreadsheet was leaked intentionally in a bid to set expectations. But the assumptions undergirding the projection strike most political professionals as credible. More to the point, its overall thrust, that in all probability the race is headed toward deadlock, is accepted by the Clinton people. "It is likely that no side will gain an appreciable or significant advantage in overall delegate counts between now and March 4, past March 4, even past April," Wolfson says. "For all of those who, for cycle after cycle, wished for a battle that goes to the convention...you could be looking at such a contest here."

If the race does indeed unfold that way, the cards that Clinton intends to play are already face-up on the table. First, she plans to rely on her advantage among the nearly 800 party panjandrums—elected officials, state chairmen, national committee members—known as superdelegates, who can vote any way they choose. Clinton currently claims a 259-170 lead among these people, with the remainder still planted on the fence; the received wisdom holds that aggressive chit-calling by Clinton and her husband will keep her ahead among this crowd all the way until the end. But if that lead doesn't prove sufficient to put Clinton over the top, her campaign is already agitating loudly that the delegates from Michigan and Florida—two states that were penalized by the DNC for moving their primaries forward and that Clinton won handily in the absence of any real competition—be seated at the convention in August in Denver.

Obama's counteroffensive against the Clintonian Michigan-Florida maneuver is already under way. His campaign correctly argues that to seat those delegations would make a mockery of the DNC, the rules it set, and the entire process. In Michigan, only Clinton (along with Chris Dodd) left her name on the ballot—and thus to count the delegates chosen there would unfairly penalize Obama. As for the superdelegates, Obama began limbering up for that battle the morning after Super-Duper Tuesday, previewing the pitch that he intends to make should the occasion warrant it. "If this contest comes down to superdelegates, we are going to be able to say we have more pledged delegates, which means the Democratic voters have spoken," he explained. "Those superdelegates, those party insiders, would have to think long and hard how they would approach the nomination."

The trace of confrontation in Obama's tone suggests how ugly things could get in Denver if Clinton attempts to take possession of the nomination this way. It hints at the crisis of legitimacy that could explode, ripping the party in two. In these circumstances, the moral responsibility for avoiding such a crisis would lie squarely with Hillary and her husband, but the political challenge, and opportunity, would rest with Obama. The superdelegates are, it's true, the embodiment of the Democratic Establishment. But in case you haven't noticed, much of that Establishment has lately turned its back on the Clintons—or put the boot in them. Many, maybe most, of the superdelegates are open to persuasion. A surprising number may even be ready to "turn the page." What they want most of all is a Democratic nominee who can win. If Obama fails to bring enough of them over to his column, it should tell us something: That the man sure can give a hell of a speech, but he can't close the deal.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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