Tuesday’s primary results confirmed the storyline for both the Republican and Democratic races: John McCain has wrapped up the GOP contest while the window of opportunity for Hillary Clinton is closing fast.
THE GOP RACE
McCain racked up an impressive victory in Wisconsin, winning over all and among Republicans by almost 20 points, improving among conservatives (he tied Mike Huckabee among self-described conservatives) and even taking the talk-radio listener vote by a wide margin. He will snag the vast majority of the state’s 37 delegates. When combined with the 903 delegates previously pledged to him and Mitt Romney’s more than 280 delegates (whom Romney asked to support McCain, but are not legally bound to him), the Wisconsin delegates should put McCain over the threshold of 1191 needed to secure the nomination. (Early returns from Washington State showed him leading there as well and poised to take a chunk of that state’s 19 delegates.)
It is not clear whether Huckabee, who doggedly has refused to step aside, will accept Tuesday’s results as proof of McCain’s victory. Huckabee has campaigned hard in Texas where he hopes to tap into support from social conservatives, although the most recent Texas polling now shows him trailing by double digits. Since there appears to be no groundswell of support for an alternative nominee and McCain enjoys increasing support from GOP leaders (most recently from former President George H.W. Bush) he likely will focus his attention now on his general election opponent.
THE DEMOCRATIC RACE
That opponent is increasingly looking like it will be Barack Obama. He secured a solid double-digit win in Wisconsin, although not as dramatic as the crushing blows he delivered to Hillary Clinton in last week’s Potomac primary. Obama argues that this makes nine (soon to be ten, when the results from his childhood home state of Hawaii roll in) wins in a row. With a majority of the Wisconsin and Hawaii delegates in his column, his lead in the delegate count will continue to grow. More importantly, his impressive run of victories will keep so-called superdelegates from straying from his camp. Obama will roll into March 4 with a head of steam.
Clinton wasted no time on the returns from Wisconsin. Before the polls closed she released excerpts from her speech from Ohio. Her message was clear: “Both Senator Obama and I would make history. But only one of us is ready on day one to be commander in chief, ready to manage our economy, and ready to defeat the Republicans. Only one of us has spent 35 years being a doer, a fighter and a champion for those who need a voice. That is what I would bring to the White House. That is the choice in this election.” Left unsaid was that most of her so-called experience is by virtue of her proximity to her husband and his political battles.
WHAT IS NEXT?
Clinton’s fleeting chances reside in the delegate math. Neither candidate may reach the 2025 delegate total need to win the nomination by the end of the primary calendar in June. The prospect therefore still looms large that the deciding votes will be cast by the superdelegates and that a bitter fight over the disputed Florida and Michigan delegates (for now excluded from the delegate count because the states violated DNC rules and moved up their primary dates before Super Tuesday) will be unavoidable. In short, if Clinton can rack up wins on March 4, keep the pledged delegate count tight and shake superdelegates’ faith in Obama she still will have a shot to wrest the nomination from his grip.
The next key event will come Thursday night when the two Democratic rivals meet for another debate. Although they were all smiles when last they met before Super Tuesday in Hollywood before the throngs of adoring movie stars, the tone is sure to be less congenial when they face off in Austin, Texas. This will be the best opportunity for Clinton to impress a national audience with her newest theme: Obama is all hat and no cattle.
Political observers are poised to see if Clinton unleashes a negative barrage against Obama in a final attempt to secure wins in the March 4 primaries and, more importantly, to sew seeds of doubt among superdelegates that he is an unknown and untested figure. We may in coming days hear much more about his dealings with the shady Tony Rezko and his “ present” voting record in Illinois. You can be sure that every one of his utterances will be examined by Clinton oppo researchers to determine whether they are his original words. A savvy Clinton may press Democratic audiences to name a single accomplishment from Obama’s brief career on the national stage.
So the Democratic nomination is slipping from Clinton’s grasp, but the race is not yet over. The decisive action will come on March 4, and then in the ensuing battle over the superdelegates and disposition of the Michigan and Florida contingents. Any avid Clinton watcher will tell you, in a political brawl, never count the Clintons out.