As we approach Super Tuesday, Barack Obama has been surging all week — closing the enormous gap he once faced in most key states. But his momentum has yet to carry him over the top.
Hillary Clinton still clings to leads, sometimes narrow, in the bulk of the states in play.
Of the 10 states with reliable and recent poll data, Hillary leads in eight, although by razor-thin margins in California, Alabama, Missouri, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Only in New York, Massachusetts, and Tennessee does her lead seem secure.
How did the Clinton machine falter so badly? And will the trend for Obama continue?
Every election is, at some level, a simple conversation between the two camps. Obama began the campaign by saying he was new; Hillary replied that he was inexperienced. Obama answered that he was a voice for change and that was the state of discussion leading up to Iowa.
Then, after losing Iowa and almost failing in New Hampshire, the Clintons basically panicked and played the race card — injecting it into a contest that had been colorblind.
While Hillary emphasizes in every speech that she could be the first woman president, Obama had rarely mentioned race. He ran for the Democratic nomination like a Republican black: never summoning victim status and avoiding racial remarks entirely.
Had the Clintons shut up and let the black voters of South Carolina do their talking for them, the bloc African-American vote there for Obama would've brought the race issue home to undecided white voters, triggering a pro-Hillary backlash. But they couldn't keep quiet. Their oh-so-subtle racial innuendo (for which I doubt they thought they would get caught), philosophizing about the relative roles Martin Luther King and President Lyndon Johnson in achieving civil rights, landed them in hot water.
With nothing else new to say, Hillary, in effect, countered Obama's message of change by saying "You're black." When Bill compared Obama to Jesse Jackson, the point was obvious.
But Obama parried with great skill in his victory speech in South Carolina by stipulating that the election was about overcoming divisions and coming together as a nation.
That brilliant move left the Clintons flat-footed.
Hillary's performance in the week after South Carolina was scripted and prosaic, a mere repetition of her rhetorical lines from the past. Like a juke box, she played poll-tested golden oldies all week, hoping we'd all sing along with her choruses.
It's been as if the Clintons, lacking dirt to throw, had nothing to say.
Yet Obama's gains still leave him shy of his mark. Tomorrow may bring a deadening roll call of narrow Hillary wins, particularly in the eight caucus states, where her control of the party apparatus gives her an edge.
Hillary has a reserve army of poor, single, white women whose support is intense and unwavering. It might be enough to pull her through. Or Obama's surge could continue, with his eloquence and positioning on the diversity issue transforming narrow defeats to victories in a host of toss-up states.
The Republican primaries are all but over.
Of the 10 states with decent poll data, John McCain has leads in eight, with Mitt Romney ahead only in his native Massachusetts and Mike Huckabee leading in Georgia. Most GOP states award delegates on a winner-take-all basis, so McCain's lead in delegates coming out of Tuesday should be insurmountable.
McCain's likely nomination is, of course, very bad news for the Democrats. He is, by far, the candidate most likely to beat Hillary in November. The very immigration bill that made him anathema to many conservatives can help him attract significant Hispanic support, while the bitterness of the Clinton-Obama contest is likely to drive many anti-Hillary independents and Democrats to support the moderate maverick from Arizona. (One thinks of how anger at Lyndon Johnson drove many liberals to vote for Nixon against Humphrey in 1968.)
McCain should have little real difficulty in consolidating the Republican and conservative ranks behind him — especially if his adversary is Hillary Clinton. Animosity to the New York senator may be just the elixir McCain needs to unite his party.