Political Capital with John Harwood

Dems: Prolonged Fight Could Hurt Chances For White House


The good news for the 2008 presidential candidates is that their torturous march across the Super Tuesday battlefield ends tomorrow night. The bad news: A new march begins the next morning.

For Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, it will be longer perhaps excruciatingly so.

For Republicans, the end may be closer.

Which raises the possibility that 2008 could produce another jack-in-a-box surprise: The party with advantages in polls and popular enthusiasm, and two path-breaking candidates, could yet march into trouble. And the party with the beleaguered White House incumbent and comparatively weak presidential field could grow stronger for the fall campaign.

Little attention has yet been paid to the states that follow the 22 that speak Tuesday night. But four days later, Democrats pick delegates in Louisiana, Nebraska, Washington and the Virgin Islands. On Feb. 10, Maine Democrats hold caucuses. On Feb. 12, inside-the-Beltway Democrats vote in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. A week later, it’s Hawaii and Wisconsin.

These nine contest have fewer than one-third the 2,075 delegates at stake Tuesday. Yet if the delegate contest remains close, they could help either Mr. Obama or Mrs. Clinton open up a lead.

The Obama campaign likes its chances for several reasons. One is that contests so far have shown that the more time he has to campaign, the better the senator from Illinois does against his New York counterpart.

The other is the Obama campaign moves into the later contests with a financial cushion of $32 million he raised in January, triple the Clinton campaign’s January goal and enough for Mr. Obama to begin media advertising to supplement organizational efforts in those states. "They just can’t match it," says Steve Hildebrand, an Obama campaign strategist.

The Clinton campaign sees its own advantages on the long march. One is the diminishing number of caucuses and "open" primaries, which have been playing to Mr. Obama’s strengths in organizing and among independents.

Another is the big March 4 contests: Ohio, a prime venue for Mrs. Clinton’s economic message, and Texas, where her edge among Hispanics could be decisive.

In any case, notes Karen Hicks, a Clinton campaign strategist, "This is going to be won by inches, not yards."

Super Tuesday Preview

The Republican race has a similar calendar, but a different feel. Building on wins in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, Mr. McCain is accumulating endorsements in a party that traditionally rallies around its front-runner. Republicans favor "winner-take-all" procedures that could magnify the effects of Mr. McCain’s widening lead in national polls.

The candidate is confident enough to attend a conference with European defense ministers later this week. Campaign manager Rick Davis, who sees the G.O.P. "really coalescing around John McCain," plans to take a little time off.

Mitt Romney’s campaign insists that misgivings by conservatives with Mr.

McCain are serious enough to revive his chances in upcoming contests. "In a year of unpredictable twists and turns, who’s to say?" says spokesman Kevin Madden.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee hasn’t signaled a quick departure either. But his nice-guy campaign, which blocks Mr. Romney from consolidating social conservatives, has acquired the aura of a vice presidential audition more than a serious challenge to Mr. McCain.

Mr. McCain, then, sees upcoming primaries as a way to "continue to grow the message all across with country," Mr. Davis says, while parrying new attacks from Democrats.

As California prepares to vote tomorrow, the Democrats have there a statistical demonstration of their party’s edge in verve, says Bob Mulholland, a longtime Democratic operative. In the last 45 days of primary registration, 150,633 Californians registered as Democrats, while 39,246 registered as Republicans.

But while Republicans see hope of catching a second wind if their race ends quickly, a prolonged Democratic fight threatens to roil the sensitivities of racial, ethnic and gender constituencies.

The more those divisions "are expressed and made raw, that’s an enormous detriment to them," says Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster. Meanwhile, for Republicans, "Having a chance to raise money, unite the party, build an election staff and rest the candidate is an enormous advantage."

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