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Don’t write off Obama

Democrats will be forgiven if their reaction to the Pennsylvania returns is a Dorothy Parkeresque “What fresh hell is this?”

Hillary Clinton may have racked up what she rightly called a “very big and very sweet” win over Barack Obama. The New York senator’s victory margin may have been just shy of double digits. And she may have achieved all this after Obama outspent her 2-to-1. But her Keystone State win was cause for shots and beers rather than champagne toasts.

For starters, Clinton won ugly, as the sports guys say. How ugly? Her final ad featured an image of Osama bin Laden – the advertising equivalent of a crucifix at an exorcism for Democrats – and a narrator asking, “Who do you think has what it takes?” Not only that, but the narrator had an answer – “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” – directed at Obama’s whining about the questions at last week’s ABC News presidential debate. Exit polls showed two-thirds of Keystone State voters thought Clinton had taken unfair shots at Obama.

Beyond this, there is the brute arithmetic of the race: Despite her impressive Pennsylvania triumph and her “From Here to Eternity” fighting spirit, it’s well-nigh impossible to fathom a way for Clinton to win the nomination.

Then there’s the Obama camp’s fresh hell. Their foretaste of eternal damnation comes in the form of the extended nominating process. It has gone on forever already, and Pennsylvania will make it forever and a day. Worse, the result is to spotlight Obama’s weaknesses as a general election candidate (the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. sermons and Obama’s San Francisco homily on God, guns, racism and bitterness).

Obama is proving unable to win the big states he’ll have to win in the fall. Never mind Republicans and independents, some Democrats are not climbing aboard the Obama bandwagon. And consider the conditions in which the all-but-inevitable nominee failed to seal the deal in Pennsylvania. Not only did he outspend Clinton, but he set a Pennsylvania record for campaign spending.

He also had the endorsement of Sen. Bob Casey, heir to the so-called Casey Democrats – white, blue-collar, Catholic, union voters – who helped make his father governor. And Obama had the advantage of running against an opponent whose already high negatives went up over the course of the Keystone State campaign.

Yet still the Democratic front-runner lost big and, perhaps more importantly, failed to broaden his support beyond African American and upscale white Democrats. Obama had the support of Casey but not, in the end, the Casey Democrats whom any Democrat will need come the fall. He had the votes of liberal and very liberal Democrats, but not the votes of moderate and conservative Democrats whom John McCain will compete for in November. It’s also worth noting that only about four of 10 gun owners, people who attend church at least weekly and rural folks supported Obama. There was, let it be said, no exit polling on those now-legendary embittered Pennsylvanians.

Yes, Democrats might be tempted to give way to desperation, and Republicans to schadenfreude. It’s a little early for both. First, Clinton or Obama will run for the White House in the most favorable political environment for Democrats since 1932. Second, Democrats have been registering loads of new voters across the land; they have the enthusiasm and funding edge.

Third, let’s assume the most probable scenario; let’s assume Obama wins the nomination. We’ve all been told he’s a uniter and healer. Never mind that this is only a figment of his airy rhetoric and aw-shucks media notices rather than a reflection of his actual record. Many of Clinton’s Democrats, of course, will “come home” after the party settles on its nominee, and the hard feelings are forgotten. But Obama will still have to do lots of healing and uniting.

If he’s successful in this, he might be president, because he’ll have finally proven he’s as special – even transformational – as he and his fans say he is.


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