To listen to some of the discussion about the Democratic presidential contest these days, one would think that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton should have spent Easter weekend in Chappaqua, writing her withdrawal speech and preparing for her return to the Senate.
Make no mistake about it; Mrs. Clinton’s task in trying to overtake Senator Barack Obama of Illinois is daunting. And it grew even tougher last week, when the collapse of efforts to redo the Florida and Michigan primaries almost certainly ended her hope of narrowing Mr. Obama’s lead in pledged delegates and of being able to claim a majority of the popular vote when the voting is done.
But it’s still not impossible. There remains at least one scenario where Mrs. Clinton could win. It is an increasingly unlikely one and one that could traumatize the Democratic Party. Still, it gives succor to her supporters, and presumably Mrs. Clinton herself, and is something to keep in mind watching the two of them head toward the endgame of their contest.
The electorate that matters most now are not the voters waiting to go to the polls in the 10 nominating contests that remain between now and June. Instead, it is the superdelegates, — the elected officials and party leaders who have automatic status as uncommitted delegates and whose votes are needed to put either Mr. Obama or Mrs. Clinton over the top. There are about 800 of them, and they are going be weighing two main arguments: Mr. Obama’s contention that the Democratic rank-and-file has expressed its will and superdelegates shouldn’t overturn it, and Mrs. Clinton’s brief that she offers the party the best chance to defeat Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, this fall.
Mr. Obama’s side of the argument has become almost unassailable, while Mrs. Clinton’s is, at the least, open to debate. Mrs. Clinton’s best hope now is that Mr. Obama, as a candidate, suffers a political collapse akin to what has happened to the subprime mortgage market, a view shared by aides in both campaigns.
How could that happen? First of all, Mrs. Clinton not only has to win Pennsylvania on April 22, she has to swamp Mr. Obama there. And she has to go on and post a convincing win against Mr. Obama in Indiana, a state where the two appear evenly matched. Results like those would serve to underscore concerns among some Democrats that arose after Mrs. Clinton had beaten Mr. Obama in Ohio, suggesting he was having trouble getting blue-collar white voters into his column. It is one constituency that aides to Mr. McCain see very much in play this fall.
Along the same lines, Mrs. Clinton would get some wind if she trounces Mr. Obama in the June 3 contest in Puerto Rico. Mr. Obama has had trouble in competing for Latino voters. And that has been duly noted by Mr. McCain’s aides who said they are beginning to see a general election upside — among Hispanic voters in a contest against Mr. Obama — to the problems that Mr. McCain’s support of immigration legislation caused him in the primaries. (That is one reason why the endorsement that Mr. Obama won last week from Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who is one of the country’s leading elected Hispanic officials, had significance going far beyond the Democratic nominating contest).
But these two factors alone would would not be enough. What Mrs. Clinton is going to need is for Mr. Obama to suffer a collapse in polls in hypothetical match-ups with Mr. McCain at the time superdelegates are being pressed to make up their minds.
Could that happen? The most pressing question now is the extent to which Mr. Obama has succeeded in dealing with the incendiary statements made by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., which rocked his candidacy last week.
Mr. Obama won huge praise for the speech he gave addressing his relationship Mr. Wright and the state of racial relations in the country. But in this case, as a political matter, the audience that counts is general election voters — not Democratic primary voters, party leaders, editorial writers or television commentators. Two months is a long time, and it is simply too soon to say if the political imprint of an acclaimed speech by Mr. Obama will begin to fade, overcome by the potent images of Mr. Wright at the pulpit.
Superdelegates are, by nature, political animals. They appreciate the potential political price if they are perceived as overturning the will of voters, and blocking what so many Democrats view as a historic candidate. They are also hungry to win the White House and, in many cases, more committed to the success of the Democratic Party than to the fortunes of any specific candidate. They surely will pause if polls two months from now show Mr. McCain with a sudden and sizable lead over Mr. Obama.
All of which is to say that while all this could happen, it is going to take a near-perfect confluence of forces in Mrs. Clinton’s favor, a turn of luck that has evaded her this year.
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