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Dems Can't Make Up Their Minds

By Gary Andres

My two younger kids love to watch the NBC television game show "Deal or No Deal." Contestants pick a suitcase that could include up to $1 million in cash. And then, guided by host Howie Mandel, they sweat out a series of decisions between accepting a known offer of money to buy their suitcase (for less than a million) or playing on in hopes of winning the big prize.

It's a nerve-wracking process, and the players express wild swings in emotions including fear, greed, doubt, joy and anguish. In the end, some are ecstatic winners and others disappointed losers -- and the calculus of choice is often agonizing and exhausting. It kind of reminds me of the Democratic primary process.

Over the past week, Barack Obama's inevitability has appeared less certain, his political mortality more evident than ever. How the process will end remains unclear, but there is a growing sense among Democrats that choosing Mr. Obama is not a risk-free exercise. Is he the suitcase with the million-dollar jackpot or a risky political bust?

Several factors contribute to a growing sense of anxiety about the Obama drama. First, how does he handle big political stumbles? The answer: like a minor leaguer. In the Ohio debate, he raised eyebrows by saying he would renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, a blatant attempt to pander to Ohio voters of the protectionist persuasion.

Afterwards, one of his advisers tried to calm nervous Canadian officials, telling them Mr. Obama wasn't serious and that the statements were more political talk than serious policy. The sordid episode makes the Illinois senator look either amateurish or duplicitous -- or both.

This week's heightened press scrutiny on several issues, like the trade matter, made the Illinois senator's cool approach to difficult questions look clumsy for the first time. At a minimum, it lowers "Saint Obama" a few notches off his heavenly perch. How to define victory is also beginning to raise doubts among Democratic voters. As Jay Cost accurately points on his HorseRaceBlog at RealClearPolitics.com, while Mr. Obama likely will maintain his lead among pledged delegates due to the proportional nature of the selection process, wins for Sen. Hillary Clinton in big states like Texas and Ohio continue to close the popular vote gap. As Mr. Cost argues, if you add in the disputed Michigan and Florida results (both states were stripped of delegates due to holding their primaries early), it wipes out most of Mr. Obama's lead in the popular vote.

If Mrs. Clinton does well in the remaining primary states, she could conceivably come out on top in the popular vote, while still lagging behind in pledged delegates. As Mr. Cost observes, that could represent a compelling argument to superdelegates and might tip the balance in her favor.

Mrs. Clinton's performance among key Democratic constituencies also raises doubts about the Obama candidacy. She reasserted her strong showing among lower-income whites, union members, seniors and the all-important Hispanic vote, according to exit polls. Other surveys demonstrate another ominous finding: There are more Democrats willing to vote for Mr. McCain than Republicans crossing over to support Mr. Obama or Mrs. Clinton. If Mr. Obama were to capture the nomination, disappointment among Hispanics and lower-income whites could provide a big plus for Mr. McCain in the general election.

Finally, Democrats express other worries about how Obama matches up against Mr. McCain in the general election. The efficacy of Mrs. Clinton's "3 a.m." national security ad suggests Democrats sense Mr. Obama's vulnerability on the key issue of keeping America safe. Mr. McCain could easily capitalize on those concerns. Moreover, Mr. Obama faces ongoing risk in the gap between his rhetoric and his record. When it comes to bipartisan talk versus bipartisan action, the contrasts between Mr. Obama's talk without action and Mr. McCain's record on issues -- ranging from immigration to judges to environmental policy, to name a few -- could produce some devastating results.

Until Tuesday, it looked like Democrats had reached a collective decision, but that now appears in doubt. Do they take the risk, choose the unknown and possibly win the big prize? Or, do they go back to the original frontrunner, who carries her own set of risks and baggage? Or, do Democrats choose another solution -- one that several pundits and superdelegates now suggest more openly: Why not a Clinton-Obama or Obama-Clinton ticket?

The only thing missing is a deal about who gets top billing. Maybe Democrats need Howie Mandel, not Howard Dean.


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