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The Race for President: The Finalists Emerge

A Commentary by Larry J. Sabato

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Now that Iowa, Wyoming, New Hampshire, Michigan, Nevada, and South Carolina have voted, at least in one party, one thing is perfectly clear: While the identities of the two major-party nominees are not yet certain, the ranks on both sides have thinned dramatically and the finalists have emerged. For the Democrats, the nominee will either be Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, in that order of probability, and for the Republicans, John McCain or Mitt Romney, with Rudy Giuliani a longshot possibility should he win Florida on January 29th. Notice that we said "win", not second place, for Giuliani. Unquestioned victory in the Sunshine State is now Rudy's only chance to be taken seriously since he has done miserably in the first five contests and has chosen to campaign almost exclusively of late in Florida.

On the Democratic side, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada have all been highly competitive. Obama won the Hawkeye State by +8, and Clinton won the Granite State by +3 and the Silver State by +6. Obama is favored in South Carolina and he needs the victory on Saturday badly to keep Clinton from winning three in a row. Should Clinton capitalize on the electorate's newfound focus on the economy (rather than Iraq) and utilize her husband's appeal to African-American voters to score an upset in the Palmetto State, then she would be justified in requesting the title of undisputed Democratic frontrunner. With a win in South Carolina, she would likely win Florida handsomely a few days later, setting the stage for a very solid performance on Super Duper Tsumani Tuesday on February 5th. On the other hand, should Obama capture South Carolina, he would set the pattern of back-and-forth victories that would enable him to survive a loss in Florida and go on to win his share of states and delegates on February 5th.

Even if he comes back to win the nomination, Obama has dramatically underestimated the difficulty of running against both Clintons simultaneously, not to mention their large organization of battle-hardened consultants. Bill and Hillary Clinton are understandably in the contest solely to win it, and they will do whatever is necessary to accomplish their goal. They correctly surmise that whatever anger and resentments black voters may develop in the defeat of Barack Obama will be long gone by November. After all, the Clintons have long-standing ties to the African-American community--and they believe that Hillary will get the usual 90 percent in black precincts, come what may. Recently the Clintons and a couple of their key supporters launched harsh attacks about race and other subjects on Obama; an observer would have to be terminally naive to believe that it was all accidental and unplanned. A few carefully chosen words and framing angles have transformed Obama from the post-racial, post-partisan contender of universal appeal into a more typical African-American candidate, who is much less intrinsically attractive to whites and Hispanics. Obama had hoped to avoid this fate, and surely he must have known his opponents would try to force him into the role he had resisted for a year or more. Until Monday night's CNN debate, his response had been muted, almost deferential.

If Obama is to get fully back in the game, then he, too, must stay on the attack as he demonstrated he can do in the debate, and stop playing a game of tiddlywinks to the Clintons' thermonuclear war. It's not as though material about the Clintons is lacking. True enough, Democrats are still supportive of the Clintons and resentful about what they endured in the 1990s. But even Democrats have a measure of Clinton fatigue, fed by the former President's increasing outbursts on the campaign trail; even Democrats dread a four- or eight-year extension of the soap opera, and they want, at some level, to turn the page. (Offbeat question: Isn't the next Clinton White House going to get a little crowded, with the two Clintons and a Vice President? Three's a crowd. Maybe we'll return to the pre-Carter/Mondale era when the Vice President was a cipher.)

What of John Edwards? It is evident to all that he will not be the Democratic nominee for President. Really, how could the Democrats, the party of diversity, nominate a white male when the other major candidates were a woman, an African-American, and a Hispanic? After South Carolina, the state of his birth, Edwards will have three choices: (1) Stay in through the primaries, collect delegates under the party's proportional rules, and hope that the Clinton/Obama split is so close that his delegates can make Edwards the kingmaker, with a payoff of the post of Attorney General or another vice-presidential nomination; (2) Drop out before or after February 5th, and endorse one of the candidates (surely Obama, given what Edwards has said during the campaign); or (3) Drop out and save his nod for later. Option three is the least likely, since Edwards will quickly become irrelevant. If the second option is chosen, can Edwards actually steer his delegates and voters to Obama? Will Edwards campaign enthusiastically for Obama to enable the transfer? Should Edwards truly prefer Obama, Edwards may conclude that the first option helps both Obama and himself the most. Many of Edwards' white, blue-collar supporters may be more inclined to choose the white female over the black male in a one-on-one match-up, no matter what Edwards says or does for Obama. Splitting the white vote may be Edwards' real favor to Obama.

On the Republican side, McCain's minimal victories in New Hampshire (37 percent) and South Carolina (33 percent) have combined to make him every inch the GOP's Comeback Kid. What irony--McCain received 42 percent in the Palmetto State in his 2000 contest with George W. Bush, and 93,000 more votes back then than he garnered last Saturday. But that showing killed his presidential candidacy, while a far inferior proportion of the vote in 2008 has McCain riding high now. His mere third of the voters in South Carolina last Saturday means that, once again, he failed to carry Republicans or conservatives. Mike Huckabee won those groups. Independents propelled him to victory, just as they did in New Hampshire. (Independents cannot vote in the Florida GOP primary, so McCain must depend alone on a fractured field to deliver him a plurality victory.) It should also be a warning sign to Republicans that 130,000 fewer South Carolinians voted Saturday than in the 2000 contest between Bush and McCain.

The McCain-Romney showdown will be fascinating. They dislike each other intensely, and they could not be more different as people and candidates. McCain's advantages include: sturdy support among Independents, who see McCain as a maverick; favorable coverage from the vast majority of the mainstream news media, who are attracted to his free-wheeling personality and have cheered him on since his 2000 candidacy; veterans who appreciate his Vietnam War service as a POW; and pragmatic Republicans who see that McCain, alone now among the candidates, is even or leading in several current polls against the possible Democratic nominees. McCain's disadvantages are also substantial. He has earned the enmity of a wide variety of wings in the GOP, including those opposed to McCain's immigration policy, the low-tax groups that remember McCain's votes against the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, and many others who focus on McCain's support of the widely despised campaign finance legislation that bears his name. McCain's nasty, volcanic temper--which is privately compared to Bill Clinton's legendary rage--has also won the senator a long list of personal adversaries.

As the primaries and caucuses so far have proven, politics is a strange and endlessly fascinating enterprise. But beware: This analysis is too cut-and-dried to last very long. With 285 days left to go before Election Day, you can be sure that the plot will thicken, with surprises aplenty.

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