Political Capital with John Harwood

Obama, Clinton Race: At What Point Does It Really Hurt Dems?


Suddenly the Democratic presidential primary race is teetering on the edge--not just between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but between boon or disaster for the party’s 2008 hopes.

So far, the clash between two history-making candidacies has only helped. In state after state, Democrats displayed their enthusiasm through robust primary turnouts that drew in many new voters. If Clinton and Obama supporters have fallen into consistent niches by gender, income, education and ethnicity, polls show most Democrats would happily support either one in November.

But now the threat of stalemate, vituperation and disillusionment hangs over a contest structured to declare a verdict a month ago. Potential fallout could imperil Democratic hopes for both the presidency and larger Congressional majorities.

“I’m very concerned,” says Rep. Mark Udall of Colorado, a state Democrats hope to turn from red to blue. He needs a united party in his bid for a Republican-held Senate seat, and warns that “could be a real challenge, especially as this thing grows more fierce.”

Mrs. Clinton won last week after escalating her attacks on Mr. Obama’s authenticity, experience, and ties to a scandal-tarred donor. In defeat, Mr. Obama responded by questioning Mrs. Clinton’s ethics.

Three-Legged Race

When she and her former-president publicly floated the possibility of a “dream ticket,” Obama advisers dismissed it as a political tactic. “Given the current trajectory of this thing, I worry about it spiraling out of control,” says Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The combination of discord and procedural snafus represents a gift to Republicans, now pulling together behind their general election candidate John McCain. “The whole process is one that will raise questions about Democratic competence,” says Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, Mr. Van Hollen’s counterpart at the House Republicans’ campaign arm. “If you cannot run your nominating process better than this, how can you govern America?”

Mr. Udall see one final contest after the final primary in Puerto Rico on June 7: a “national caucus” in the form of swift decisions by those “super-delegates” who remain uncommitted, and who either candidates will need for victory. Mr. Udall is one of them.

“Another 60 days probably doesn’t hurt us,” he says. “At that point, we’ve got to decide on a nominee.”

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