Final Thoughts

March 5, 2008 1:21 a.m.

The big headlines tonight are now in focus. Hillary takes three of four primaries, and the two big states. Yet the delegate spread didn’t budge. The possibilities seem to range from a high-single digit pick up for Hillary to the possibility of a net pick up for Obama. So, big headlines and buzz for Hillary, but the same stubborn picture on the pledged delegate front.

Both sides are spinning like wild about what the different numbers mean. And a lot gets said about how each side might be ‘willing’ to win. But it’s not going to be up to them. The super delegates are going to break for the winner of the primary/caucus process, as long as it’s relatively clear. Who the ‘winner’ (in the perception of the supers and Democrats around the country) is will also be heavily informed by what the available evidence suggests about who’s going to be the stronger candidate in the general. I don’t pretend that makes the whole thing simple or the outcome obvious. I just mean to stress that the spin from each side isn’t going to be as big a factor as you might think. It’s not up to them as much as they want to convince everyone that it is.

A lot’s getting said tonight. And a lot of it is baseless speculation. But the one thing that rings true to me is this: The Clinton campaign got rough and nasty over the last week-plus. And they got results. That may disgust you or it may inspire you with confidence in Hillary’s abilities as a fighter. But wherever you come down on that question is secondary to the fact that that’s how campaign’s work. Opponents get nasty. And what we’ve seen over the last week is nothing compared to what Barack Obama would face this fall if he hangs on and wins the nomination.

So I think the big question is, can he fight back? Can he take this back to Hillary Clinton, demonstrate his ability to take punches and punch back? By this I don’t mean that he’s got to go ballistic on her or go after Bill’s business deals or whatever else her vulnerabilities might be. Candidates fight in different ways and if they’re good candidates in ways that play to their strengths and cohere with their broader message. But he’s got to show he can take this back to Hillary and not get bloodied and battered when an opponent decides to lower the boom. That will obviously determine in a direct sense how he fares in the coming primaries and caucuses. And Obama’s people are dead right when they say, he doesn’t even have to do that well from here on out to end this with a substantial pledged delegate margin.

At the end of the day, the winner of the pledged delegate race has the strongest claim to the nomination. Everything else is spin. But it’s a strong claim, not incontestable.

Let’s hypothesize for a moment a scenario in which March 4th broke the back of Obama’s campaign. He emerges bloodied and doesn’t seem to be able to stand up to Hillary’s assault. His delegate margin is big enough that she can’t catch up. But she runs through the next dozen or however many remaining contests there are making up steady ground on the pledged delegate front. I don’t think a small margin of pledged delegates will be enough if Obama looks like a damaged candidate who seems unable to fight off a determined and ruthless opponent. Just hanging on to the margin he banked in February won’t be enough because fundamentally, if neither candidate has it locked by the convention, the super delegates will want to pick the candidate who looks like the general election winner and is the favorite of Democrats at the time of the convention, two qualifiers which are in practice two sides of the same coin.

I don’t think the above is a likely scenario. In fact, I think it’s quite unlikely. Almost everything remains stacked against Hillary. There’s no denying that. But I think this does point to what this debate — literal and meta — will turn on over the next couple weeks.

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