With just nine contests remaining, the Democratic presidential nom-ination race is getting even more interesting. Just days ago, it seemed that the only way that Barack Obama could fail to clinch his party's nod would be to leave his wife and move in with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
That is, until Wright took to the lectern at the National Press Club to launch what amounted to a kamikaze attack on Obama's candidacy,
sputtering nonsense that must have left the senator's campaign operatives wondering whether they had accidentally tuned their TVs to the political horror channel.
Some suggest that the reverend's rant could breathe new life into Hillary Rodham Clinton's nearly moribund campaign and allow her to wrestle the nomination from Obama's grasp.
To be sure, the delegate arithmetic for Clinton is seemingly impossible. The NBC News count shows Obama with 1,732 delegates (1,490 pledged and 242 superdelegates) to Clinton's 1,599 (1,334 pledged plus 265 superdelegates), an advantage for the front-runner of 133 delegates. With a total of 4,048 delegates, 133 doesn't sound like much of a lead, but in the Democrats' proportional delegate-selection process, where changes are measured in millimeters, Obama indeed has a strong advantage.
Anthony Corrado, a political scientist and delegate-selection expert at Colby College, estimates that Clinton needs to win 69 percent of the remaining pledged delegates to catch up. To do so, she would have to get about 66 percent of the popular vote in the nine remaining primaries. So far, Clinton has reached that level of support in only the Arkansas primary. Superdelegates have not been helping her close the gap. Democratic consultant John Edgell's superdelegate count shows that 100 superdelegates have endorsed since March 1: 77 of them went for Obama, and 23 for Clinton.
Inadvertently or not, Clinton got one of her biggest boosts of the year from Wright, whose Monday speech seemed designed to pry the nomination from Obama's fingers. Many Democrats, and a considerable number of independents, have long assumed that in a general election Obama would not be much hampered by his race, his unusual name, his Muslim father, or his relative inexperience in dealing with national issues.
Certainly, young, well-educated Democrats seem the most open to Obama's exotic blend, just as they are to cutting-edge technologies and the newest music. "Change" is not a four-letter word to young latte Democrats.
But to downscale, high-school-educated, white Democrats who make less than $50,000 a year and are more likely to spend money at Wal-Mart than Starbucks, much about Obama seems a bit odd. And Wright's diatribe seems to be reinforcing stereotypes with these voters, presenting Obama with his gravest crisis yet as a candidate.
Arithmetically, Obama still seems unstoppable, but the past few days have made his unusual profile tougher for older and working-class white Democrats to embrace. Even before Wright grabbed the spotlight, presumptive GOP nominee John McCain was leading Obama by 6 points among voters with a high school education or less.
Everything that Clinton could have wished for seems to have happened over the last few weeks. The news media finally got around to scrutinizing the senator from Illinois more intensely. Obama stumbled in the last debate, appearing defensive and bordering on being testy. Clinton followed up her victories in Ohio, Rhode Island, and the primary side of the "Texas two-step" primary-caucus combination with a solid 9-point win in Pennsylvania. Then Wright turned in his performance.
The math is still the math, but a race that seemed to be over may not be over. What happens in Indiana and North Carolina on Tuesday could tell us a lot about how quintessentially middle-class states now view Obama.
This article appears in the May 3, 2008, edition of National Journal.