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Obama is Wounded, but Clinton Must Prove He Can't Win

By Mort Kondracke

The best political joke of 2008 was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) at the Washington Press Club Foundation's dinner in February -- about how the Democratic race featured Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Senator born in Illinois, and Barack Obama, an Illinois Senator "who seems to have been born in a manger."

Except, the joke isn't valid any more. The long, contentious Democratic primary battle has reduced Obama from a messiah -- except among his most ardent disciples -- to an ordinary mortal.

He started out largely unknown to the public, delivering a message of unity and post-partisanship that the country clearly is hungering for. He also seemed to offer the country a chance to move beyond its historic racial divisions. And he promised to rise above customary slash-and-burn politics.

He's still a formidable force, but he's been brought back to ordinary dimensions as voters have gotten to know him -- and, as primary results in New Hampshire, New Jersey, California, Texas, Ohio and now Pennsylvania show, he can't "close the deal" to end Clinton's challenge and wrap up the nomination.

The Clinton campaign managed to polarize the contest racially -- despite his heated denials, Bill Clinton did liken Obama to the Rev. Jesse Jackson in South Carolina -- and Obama has had to resort to negative campaigning to counterpunch at Clinton.

He's also now revealed as the most liberal Member of the U.S. Senate -- and one who has never, ever departed from party orthodoxy to form the kind of bipartisan coalition he says -- correctly -- that it will take to solve America's problems.

It's all about "vetting." When somebody has been in national life for only three years and is running for the highest office in the land, it's only natural that voters -- and journalists -- find out what the candidate is made of, what his character is.

Which is why it was perfectly appropriate for ABC News interrogators Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos to ask questions about Obama's remark that small-town Pennsylvanians "cling" to their guns and religion because they are "bitter," about his refusal to wear a flag pin and about his association with radicals such as former Weatherman Bill Ayers and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Obama did get hard questions, but when Clinton was the frontrunner, she got hard questions, too. She whined at the time. Then, he did. And his media claque whined even louder.

The "character" questions were also appropriate because they are the substance of the Clinton campaign's case against Obama -- that he can't beat Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) because he can't carry white working-class voters, Hispanics, Catholics, Ohio, Florida -- maybe even Massachusetts and New Jersey.

All that's partly about race, Clinton campaign officials acknowledge, but it's also about class. "People who have the luxury of hope go for Obama," one aide told me. "If they are college-educated and buy lattes at Starbucks, they're for him.

"But if people are really hurting, facing foreclosure or in danger of losing a job or health insurance, they're for her."

It's still likely that Obama will win the nomination. Clinton's 10-point victory in Pennsylvania closed his overall delegate advantage by only 15 -- down to 127 -- and cut his popular vote lead by 215,000, down to 501,000. Those Clinton gains probably will be wiped out on May 6 if he wins big in North Carolina and it's close in Indiana.

"Obama is depending on arithmetic and Clinton is banking of psychology," said former Democratic National Committee Executive Director Mark Siegel. "She's hoping that superdelegates will have an epiphany, deciding he's unelectable.

"But superdelegates also have to be thinking, 'if we deny him the nomination when he's ahead, it could alienate blacks and young people, the party's base and future, and be dangerous for the party.

"Superdelegates were created to be pragmatists, look at electability and save the party from going over a cliff. But if they take it away from Obama, the press will say that 'party bosses' did it in 'smoke-filled rooms.' To convince them, she needs solid empirical evidence that he'd take the party over a cliff."

As it happens, there is some. Although national polls show that Obama and Clinton both are essentially tied with McCain, Clinton does better than Obama in crucial swing states. In Ohio, an average of recent polls show McCain beating Obama by 2.6 points. Clinton beats McCain by 5 points.

In Florida, McCain beats Obama by 11.7 points but is tied with Clinton.

There certainly are states that Obama might win that Clinton probably can't -- Nevada, Iowa, even Nebraska and North Dakota -- but the latest national polling roundup assembled by former White House political chief Karl Rove shows McCain leading Obama in states with 261 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win, while against Clinton, he has 214.

Also, Republican pollster Whit Ayres told me that four focus groups he's conducted among blue-collar whites in Michigan and Missouri show "they are open to voting for Hillary Clinton, but there's no way in hell they are going for Obama. It's cultural.

"They just don't think he's a patriotic American. It's the flag pin, his church, his wife's statement that most Americans are 'mean.' As one woman said in one of these groups, 'I don't think he bleeds red, white and blue.'"

Ayres also polled Tennessee -- a GOP-leaning state -- for Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) and found that Clinton would lose to McCain by 8 points, but that Obama would lose by 20 points. Twenty-five percent of Democrats said they would not vote for Obama.

So, after Pennsylvania, the contest goes on. The next big test is Indiana, a Republican state with a slightly younger population than Pennsylvania's and higher median income but less college-educated and more rural. It's next to Obama's home state of Illinois, but its leading Democrat is Sen. (and former Gov.) Evan Bayh, who supports Clinton.

If Obama cannot close the deal there, the race likely will go on until June. At the moment, 30-odd percent of Democrats nationally tell pollsters they will either not vote or defect to McCain if their favorite does not get nominated. It won't be that bad, for sure, but it would be good for Democrats if someone closed the deal soon to reunite the party.

Mort Kondracke is the Executive Editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill since 1955. © 2007 Roll Call, Inc.

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