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The Race for President: The Finalists Emerge

A Commentary by Larry J. Sabato

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.)

For now, though, the yawning gender, racial, and generational divides that are appearing in the exit polls are helping Hillary Clinton. Post-Iowa, Democratic women have rallied to her by large margins, encouraged by the Clinton campaign's direct and indirect appeals about gender. Men are supporting Obama by substantial margins, but women dominate Democratic contests, often supplying up to 60 percent of the votes cast. The young (male and female) have enthusiastically rallied to Obama, who they view as "the future"--as opposed to Clinton as "part of the past". Yet older voters, especially those over 60, usually comprise a disproportionate share of the Democratic electorate--advantage, Hillary. Obama also does especially well among white high-income, high-education voters, but Clinton's downscale white voters out-vote Obama's categories. Obama has overcome the early African-American backing for Clinton, and is winning huge margins among blacks, but Clinton is winning whites and, by an impressive majority, Hispanics. If these patterns remain unaltered, Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. If Obama can scramble them on Super Tuesday, he can still win--but the primary burden is now on Obama.

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.

Amazingly, even though McCain is loathed by much of the activist corps of the GOP, he could easily end up the party's nominee in a weak field, where every other candidate also has prominent drawbacks. Still, McCain has lost Michigan, Nevada, and Wyoming to Romney, and Iowa to Huckabee. This is not a party genuflecting to McCain, and he has a stiff battle ahead. Romney is a certain combatant since he has the money and conservative backing to fight on. With the defeat in South Carolina--one of Huckabee's best potential states because of the size of the Christian evangelical population--it has become highly improbable, almost to the vanishing point, that Huckabee will be the GOP nominee, though he will stay in the race and continue to collect delegates through at least February 5th. Perhaps intentionally, this can help McCain by draining off evangelical votes that would not likely go to the Arizona senator. Huckabee has been auditioning for vice president for some time, flirting especially with McCain. As for Fred Thompson, his poor finish in South Carolina signaled the effective end of a campaign that can charitably be described as ineffective--one that peaked the day he announced, or perhaps several weeks before that. As one of our correspondents suggested this week, "Throughout, Hollywood actor Fred Thompson's campaign has acted as though it was hindered by the writer's strike."

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.

By contrast, Romney usually has a sunny disposition, and his large family is picture perfect. His business background and executive experience give him an opening to address the weak economy, and his current positions on all the big issues are consonant with the GOP's prevailing philosophy. At a time when Washington is deeply unpopular, Romney links McCain to the culture of D.C., where the senator has long been one of the pillars of power. Of course, Romney's record is considerably less conservative than he now presents it as being, full of turnabouts and come-to-Jesus moments that smack of political convenience. There is also no denying that, however unfair it is, his Mormon faith has proven troublesome. One reason Romney pulled out of South Carolina was that he could not overcome the palpable prejudice that evangelical Christians have about his religion, and South Carolina's view is shared throughout much of the South and elsewhere. Partly as a consequence, Romney shows up in national polls as the weakest of the major Republican candidates in November, with both Obama and Clinton defeating him in a landslide. To Republicans already nervous about their prospects in 2008, Romney's electability is a considerable drawback.

McCain's resurrection is a reminder that the only dead politician is one buried six feet under. Easily 99 percent of the political community, including many long-time, prominent McCainiacs, had given him up for lost last summer. The implosion of McCain's campaign after he had spent tens of millions with very little to show for it will probably become an issue at some point. ("Can you trust this man with your tax money and a trillion-dollar government when he couldn't run a relatively small campaign?") But for now, McCain--like all those gratefully living on borrowed time--has a joie de vivre that adds to his appeal. A further irony is that, almost by accident and the lack of an electorally credible alternative, McCain could be the one GOP nominee with a real chance to win in a tough year for the Republicans. Right now--ten months before the actual election--he matches up well against the polarizing Clinton and the untested Obama. The swing Independents may well choose him, especially over Clinton, who has consistently had little appeal to that group. McCain is close enough to most of Bush's policies to induce the vast majority of Republicans to vote for him, despite their reservations, yet as a former bitter opponent of Bush's, it will be difficult for Democrats to make McCain bear the full weight of Bush's unpopularity.

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.

Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

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