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A Decisive Moment or Status Quo?

By Reid Wilson

The Democratic race has come down to a tale of two strategies: On one hand, a candidate is receiving commitments from super delegates, edging nearer to the magic number of total convention votes necessary to capture the Democratic nomination. On the other hand, a candidate is bragging about the sense of momentum that comes after winning a number of major contests in a row. Sound familiar? It should, it's the same set of arguments that have been thrown back and forth for months.

Only now, the roles are reversed. It is Barack Obama who benefits from the daily trickle of super delegate endorsements as his campaign ticks down the ever-decreasing number of delegates needed to win the nomination. And it is Hillary Clinton, whose victories in Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania have fueled yet another round of Comeback Kid stories.

But today's elections are filled with reused, and reusable, storylines: Indiana and North Carolina primary voters could effectively end the Democratic presidential contest. But a split decision is most likely, with neither candidate benefiting from a big influx of new delegates. And super delegates watching closely will likely make a loud statement on Wednesday based on today's results.

The race's fundamentals remain the same. While both candidates are casting themselves as underdogs, Hillary Clinton has a long, difficult climb ahead of her for the nomination. Of the three possible outcomes we will see tonight, only one can vault her back into a position to win.

If Clinton wins both Indiana and North Carolina, and Indiana by a wide enough margin to take a serious majority of the state's 72 available delegates, she can effectively stem the tide of super delegates who have begun the exodus toward Obama in the past several weeks. To do so, Clinton will have to rack up big margins in rural parts of both states; most of her events in both states have been held in small towns, stretching from Appalachia to the coast.

Bill Clinton, the self-styled ambassador to rural America, has been the key to his wife's outreach to small-town voters. During a grueling nine stops on Monday, the former president stopped in three towns with populations under 10,000. Aside from Raleigh, the second-largest city in the state, only Jacksonville, a city of nearly 70,000, has a significant population. In both states, according to an NBC News analysis, Bill Clinton has visited at least twenty counties that have never hosted a current or former president.

By running up big margins in those areas and blunting Obama's own expected heavy margins in Indianapolis and the Chicago suburbs, in Indiana, and in the Research Triangle, in North Carolina, Clinton has a chance at a major victory. But it remains, as it has for the last several contests, an outside chance, without which the Clinton campaign will have wasted yet another opportunity to claw back to a competitive plateau.

An equally unlikely scenario is a knockout punch from the Obama campaign. As in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas, Obama once again has the ability to effectively seal the nomination by winning Indiana and North Carolina. Though parts of Indiana are in the Chicago media market, a win there would give the media an excuse to write stories declaring that Obama had weathered the storm surrounding Jeremiah Wright, and that he can win among working class whites, with whom he has had pronounced trouble connecting.

A win in North Carolina would probably be caused by larger than normal turnout among African American and younger voters. That's something super delegates want to see, given that Obama's electability argument hinges less on the ability to turn out the standard Democratic constituency and more on the ability to expand the base and turn out first-time voters.

If Obama wins both states, and by convincing margins, the Clinton campaign's first reaction will be to look ahead to coming contests in Kentucky and West Virginia, where she is likely to do well. But they should instead look for a flood of super delegates to Obama's side, cutting the number of delegates he needs to win to a perilously small number for the Clinton campaign.

By far the most likely scenario is a virtually even split of the 187 delegates at stake today, with Clinton winning Indiana and Obama winning North Carolina by similarly small margins. That would essentially change nothing: Hillary Clinton would still be virtually too far behind to catch up, while Obama would be mere days away from clinching the title. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that Clinton nets seven delegates tonight, Obama would still take home 90 votes, putting him at 1,835 before any additional super delegates make up their mind and just 189 from the goal.

Seeing the seemingly inevitable, a block of super delegates could make a break for Obama, starting a snowball that effectively ends Clinton's chances of wrapping up the nomination and putting an outright win, made possible not by super delegates but by pledged delegates won from Oregon, Montana or one of the other remaining eight contests, within reach.

Still, if Clinton takes one of the two prizes tomorrow, media coverage may continue to treat the contest as a dead heat. And while the New York Senator will be well-positioned to win the Mountaineer primary on May 13, her practical hopes of winning the nomination will be all but finished.

In short, the two candidates have traded places. During his string of eleven straight primary wins in February, Obama's team said their strategy was pledged delegate allocation. Now, their target audience is almost entirely super delegates watching the two primaries this week with a hawk-like focus. Several months ago, Clinton maintained that super delegates could, and would, effectively hand her the nomination. Now, they're depending on momentum generated by pledged delegates they hope to win tonight.

As strategies flip-flop, and as the race - more of a slow mosey, at this point - ambles toward some sort of a conclusion, both teams have contradicted themselves on multiple occasions. But the only number that matters is the number of delegates needed to win this summer's Denver convention. And, given the polls at the moment, Barack Obama looks like he will be closer, by an almost insurmountable margin, by the time tonight's ramifications shake out.

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at

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