WASHINGTON — For months now, we've been waiting for the Democratic nomination contest to hit its tipping point. We've been fooled so many times this primary season by "phantom tips" that we're wary of even looking anymore. Remember how Iowa, then New Hampshire, and then Wisconsin marked the turning points in the campaign? But the events of this week seem to leave little doubt that the race has tipped decidedly for Barack Obama, and that Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign has run out of ways to tip it back.
Obama's highly personal and powerful speech in Philadelphia on Tuesday, combined with Florida Democrats' decision not to push for a revote and the increasing likelihood that Michigan legislators will also reject a revote, have cut off any remaining angles for Clinton.
It's still too early to speculate on whether Obama's speech will alter the way in which race is discussed this fall. Nor can we evaluate whether or not it changed the minds of undecided voters. But this much seems certain: It will affect the way in which the issue of race is addressed in the primary. And it will certainly affect the way in which superdelegates -- the ultimate "deciders" of the Democratic nomination -- evaluate the two candidates.
Obama put himself out there in a way that no other White House candidate has done thus far. Unlike Mitt Romney, who mentioned the word "Mormon" just once in a speech designed to address concerns about his religious beliefs, Obama uttered the word "race" more than 10 times. Instead of glossing over the issue, he forced it to the surface. He has now defined the terms of debate on both the Jeremiah Wright controversy and the larger discussion of race. While he once again distanced himself from statements made by Wright, he didn't disown him. All of this was done in a way that looked and felt natural because it didn't stray from the central and consistent message of the campaign: Obama is not a typical politician who is satisfied doing the "safe" thing.
Video: Viewers weigh in on Obama speech The speech also stands in contrast to Clinton, who noted early in her campaign that she was the "most famous person you don't really know." Well, we're almost through the month of March, and we still don't know her much better than when we started.
Obama has successfully redefined any lingering Wright talk as just "another distraction" at a time when superdelegates and Democratic primary voters have grown increasingly more concerned about their nominee's chances against John McCain.
By now, however, Democratic insiders know that even solid wins for Clinton in upcoming primaries won't be enough to erase Obama's lead among pledged delegates. If Michigan joins Florida in rejecting a revote, it also makes it nearly impossible for her to come close to overcoming Obama's lead in the popular vote.
But that's where the "electability" argument was supposed to come in to play for Clinton. For many weeks, polls showed Obama matching up just as well or better against McCain than Clinton. But a recent Gallup/USA Today poll showed Clinton with her first significant lead (5 percent) over McCain since last November. Obama, meanwhile, remains statistically tied with the Arizona senator.
This should benefit Clinton, right? After all, her plea to primary voters as well as superdelegates has been to let the process play out until the last vote is cast, to allow for a proper vetting of the candidates. But it seems as if Obama's speech effectively turned the "electability" question into a code word for "acceptable to whites." If so, it means that superdelegates will be very wary of opening a racial divide among Democrats that won't heal before November and may not for a long time to come.
Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.