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OFF TO THE RACES

Generally Speaking

The 2008 Democratic presidential nomination contest is finally winding down, with Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., clearly in a position to win more pledged delegates and superdelegates, as well as the popular vote, than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.

Both campaigns know the nomination is settled, and Clinton will get a chance to savor victories in West Virginia and Kentucky, to take some of the sting out, before she receives closure.

 

While Clinton could certainly use some help retiring her campaign debt, with some estimates ranging as high as $20 million, it is clear that Obama cannot afford to be anything but generous in victory. He now needs her and her supporters more than she needs him.

Sometime over the next month, the Obama campaign will find a mechanism with party officials to seat delegates from Florida and Michigan, without upsetting the nomination process conclusion. But rest assured, it will be a process that puts states on notice not to try to jump the line again. Party rules are party rules, and states that willfully violate party rules have to face consequences.

Unquestionably, this extended nomination fight has been costly and divisive. But the process is healthier when more states than Iowa and New Hampshire have a say in the nomination process.

 

Millions of Democrats played a part in that process and their brimming party registration rolls are proof that there was a silver lining to this bitter fight.

Arguably, Obama is better off for having had this fight too. Prior to this, Obama had never won a tough race.

The circumstances of his primary and general election to the Senate more resembled an immaculate conception than the route most new senators take to the chamber.

He has now been bruised and battle tested, and Obama and his backers are now less likely to enter the fall general election campaign with any complacency.

 

They know where his weaknesses are and have some time to address those problems.

It's a good bet that Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., would have been better off in the 2004 election if his campaign had been tested more and been fully prepared for the Swift Boat veterans' attacks -- and dealt with them in a more immediate and straightforward way.

Obama will also enter this general election campaign with some tough decisions.

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Will he try to replicate past battleground state maps, fighting tooth and nail in Florida and Ohio despite evidence that he is somewhat weaker in those states than past Democratic nominees?

Or, will he try to put together other states to replace those two?

Can Obama win Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico or Virginia? Former Vice President Gore managed to pick off Iowa and New Mexico in 2000, and Kerry pulled a win in New Hampshire. But will Obama have to work harder to hold onto Minnesota, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin?

The Pennsylvania primary vividly exposed Obama's softness and there is a lack of appreciation among Democrats for Gore and Kerry's narrow victories in Minnesota and Wisconsin in 2000 and 2004. Neither state is nearly as blue as many in the party assume.

Both Obama and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., are going to have to show a considerable amount of dexterity, certainly more than they showed in the primaries.

McCain must simultaneously drive up Republican turnout -- even more than Karl Rove and the Bush campaign did in 2004 -- while reaching to the middle for independent and swing voters, which the Bush campaign never tried.

Doing one is not that difficult, but doing both at the same time is quite a challenge.

They must do this because the Republican Party has dropped from partisan parity four years ago to a clear deficit in party identification. Additionally, there are signs galore that Democratic energy and interest in this election are sky high.

But Obama has his mountain to climb, too. He cannot underperform among less-educated and older white voters and expect to win this election.

"The Change We Need" is his mantra, but some voters are more open to change than others. He represents a great deal of change for some, while others seem to see him as a risk -- somebody too different from anyone they have ever voted for.

Their comfort level will need to be a great deal higher before he will be able to bring them along with him.

While the Louisiana gubernatorial election of former Rep. Bobby Jindal, R-La., a 36-year-old Rhodes scholar and son of immigrants from India, showed that voters can be persuaded to cast ballots for people very different from themselves, it should be noted that Jindal lost the 2003 election, and this was his second go-round.

In other words, he had a four-year process to make Louisianans comfortable enough to vote him in. Obama will not have that same allowance of time.

Just as the 2000 election came down to 537 votes out of almost 6 million cast in Florida and 2004 was decided by 118,599 in Ohio out of almost 5.6 million ballots, this is likely to be a close one, too.

It will ultimately be determined by events that have not yet occurred and shaped by dynamics that might not have yet formed.

Last year's politics have been anything but predictable, and there is no reason to think that they will become so now. Buckle up: this will continue to be a heck of a ride.

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