Obama 2008
Susan Walsh  /  AP
Sen. Barack Obama, accompanied by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington for a vote on the budget.
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updated 6/4/2008 1:33:39 PM ET 2008-06-04T17:33:39
ON THE TRAIL

So this is what it must feel like to be a lab rat. For the last 16 months, it feels like we’ve been part of a mad science experiment to measure just how much stimulation a brain can handle before it simply fizzles out and shuts down. I’ll admit it, I’ve broken. There’s no longer a Pavlovian response when I see “breaking news alerts” flash across the screen. I don’t notice my heart race when another superdelegate announces his or her pick or when the arcane rules of the Democratic National Committee are discussed.

To give a cleareyed look at what comes next, I think it’s important that all of us take the time to sit down and reflect instead of react. Here’s where we can start:

Party Unity. I’ve long been skeptical about the notion that the Democratic Party is deeply divided and in need of healing. Even Tuesday night’s non-concession speech by Hillary Rodham Clinton hasn’t convinced me that this is a party on the edge of implosion.

Each candidate deserved time in the spotlight Tuesday night. Yes, Barack Obama earned his victory lap. But after winning 22 individual contests and 48 percent of the popular vote, Clinton earned a warm-down lap of her own.

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What she is doing now, however, is much more dangerous. Thanking your supporters and helping them process their emotional upheaval is appropriate. But giving them false hope is downright dangerous. The longer Clinton waits to tamp down expectations from her very eager and emotionally raw supporters, the harder it will be for her to ultimately corral them to support Obama.

On the other hand, an overreaction by Obama or the Democratic leadership can also backfire. Does a Harry Reid-Nancy Pelosi-Howard Dean unity message come across to Clinton backers as healing or as chastising? And the more the media fuel the “Clinton as narcissist” message, the harder it will be for Clinton to dial down her supporters' anger.

One way to determine just how entrenched Clinton's voters are will be to watch the polls for an Obama “bump.” Many Republicans have suggested that with Obama taking his place as the nominee, the base will naturally coalesce and he’ll jump out to a 10-point lead over John McCain. This leaves a high bar for Obama to clear -- especially with so much uncertainty still swirling. But if he does, it means that Clinton loses her leverage.

McCain As Change Agent. He showed little remorse in throwing President Bush under the bus in his speech last night in New Orleans. But the issues he picked -- climate change and energy policy -- while important, are not as seminal to voters as the economy and Iraq. If Obama is going to be successful at tying McCain to Bush, he must keep the focus on those two issues. Whenever McCain can keep Obama talking about lobbying reform or carbon caps, and not Bush's tax cuts or the rationale for going to Iraq, it’s a win for McCain.

While it’s true that Democrats won’t easily be able to morph McCain into “McBush," it’s also important to remember that McCain’s “maverick-ness” isn’t as well-defined among independents as conventional wisdom suggests. Sure, indie voters like him. But a recent Charlottesville, Va., focus group conducted by Peter Hart showed that independent voters know McCain primarily for his military experience, not his reputation for bucking the GOP.

We've got another five long months to go. Let's all take a deep breath (and maybe a vacation).

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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