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Will the Reagan Era End Today?

By Mark Davis

Millions of Republicans and Democrats will file into polling booths today. Both parties may look different by late tonight.

Republicans stand the greatest chance of a tectonic shift. That search for the next Reagan may actually bring about the end of his heroic era.

All the conservatives bellyaching about having to endure John McCain as their nominee have until the end of this calendar day to unite behind Mitt Romney, who has been the only worthy heir apparent to the Reagan mantle since Fred Thompson properly took his leave after South Carolina.

Mike Huckabee should have done the same after his Florida trouncing, but his ego and the desire to be Mr. McCain's running mate are a strong potion that keeps him in the race, fracturing the Reagan base just enough to allow Mr. McCain to dominate tonight's returns.

McCain-Huckabee is not a horrible Republican ticket. It's just that a ticket led by Mr. Romney is substantially better on taxes, the environment, illegal immigration, campaign finance, terrorist interrogations - the familiar litany of issues on which Mr. McCain essentially has been a Democrat far too often.

Conservatives have no one to blame but themselves. Mr. Huckabee never was a thoroughly deserving darling. Fred Thompson was, but for all that hunger for the next Reagan, the right choice was in front of the GOP's face in several states, and the reaction was a collective yawn.

Rudy Giuliani attracted fiscal conservatives, but their votes for him in Florida were wasted. That state was a two-man race by primary day, and conservatives should have known it and backed Mr. Romney.

If Mr. Romney's conversions have been a little too recent for some, or his Mormonism a little too weird, that's fine. But I don't want to hear a peep of whining from people who passed on him when they had the chance and now plan to complain loudly about what a disillusioning choice Mr. McCain is.

If this sounds like an epitaph written before the patient is dead, you're right. I would love to see Mr. Romney rise up with enough delegates to make a strong case for battling Mr. McCain into the spring, but I have a feeling Eli Manning will be the only miracle worker we see this week.

Democrats also have to figure out where their party is headed, but they don't seem quite as tortured about it.

Compared to Republican angst, Democrat life is sweet. On Thursday night, Aug. 28, an adoring throng in Denver will witness poignant American history by hearing their party's nomination accepted either by the first woman or the first African-American with a real shot at leading the free world.

That is heady stuff, and a general narrative of satisfaction, even joy, has accompanied the determining of it, even as the candidates have taken occasional swipes at each other.

But with Bill Clinton sufficiently muzzled and a last debate filled with relative civility, it seems that tonight's Barack Obama vs. Hillary Clinton scorecard will reflect their actual strengths rather than unfortunate sideshows.

On that measure, Mrs. Clinton should have a big night. Mr. Obama will secure strong delegate counts in several states - none of the Democrat primaries is an infernal winner-take-all - but the storyline will be about wins and losses, and the former first lady should trump her rival in California and New York. Throw in Massachusetts and New Jersey, and Mr. Obama's likely wins start to pale.

His home state of Illinois is a nice plum, but after that, his only comfortable states are Minnesota, Alabama, Georgia, North Dakota, Kansas, Idaho and Alaska.

Seven states are toss-ups, but only three have even moderate delegate heft: Connecticut, Missouri and Arizona. He would have to sweep those to argue that he has kept pace.

Mr. Obama will do well enough to duck the water torture of the "it's-time-for-you-to-go" chorus. But while he will not hit the canvas, Mitt Romney might, and a McCain-loving media chorus will happily shout the 10-count.

The story of this last magnificent month has been voters rising up and refusing to let the establishment pick candidates for them. From GOP country clubs to media ivory towers, Mr. McCain is the obvious choice. We'll see tonight if real voters have one more snub left to deliver.

Mark Davis is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News. The Mark Davis Show is heard weekdays nationwide on the ABC Radio Network. His e-mail address is mdavis@wbap.com.

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