Sooner or later, almost every presidential nominating campaign produces the sort of angry and emotional debate that and slugged through last Monday.
At one New York City debate late in the 1984 race, Walter Mondale and Gary Hart battered each other so relentlessly that Jesse Jackson almost needed to physically separate them. In an especially heated 1992 encounter, Bill Clinton appeared ready to lean over and deck Jerry Brown.
The nominating system, by its nature, encourages such ferocity. Because the leading contenders usually differ only modestly on issues, they are compelled to exaggerate their differences and to magnify any blemish they find in their opponent's character or career. The campaign staffs, frazzled and tense, steadily lose respect for each other. The candidates, scraped raw by stress and exhaustion, grow less inclined to hand back the opposition research that their staff provides. Grievances mount, and the tension releases in bursts of personal antagonism -- like the Wal-Mart/slumlord exchange between Clinton and Obama on Monday -- that appear to come from a much deeper place than considerations of campaign strategy. They are as natural and fierce as a summer storm.
What ought to trouble Democrats is that their two leading candidates have reached this point at a time when a great many signs suggest their competition could continue long after the 22-state showdown on February 5 -- probably until Texas and Ohio vote on March 4. That means that unless the candidates can climb back off this emotional ledge, they will have plenty of time to damage each other -- and the party's prospects next fall. Nasty, brutish, and long is an ominous combination for Democrats.
Several factors now discourage an early resolution of the Democratic race, even if is forced to quit, or is marginalized, after Saturday's primary in South Carolina. One is the party rule requiring states to divide their delegates proportionally among candidates who attract at least 15 percent of the vote. That system, which allows Clinton and Obama to accumulate delegates almost everywhere, "makes it virtually impossible to deliver a knockout blow on February 5," says a senior adviser to one contender.
An early knockout is also unlikely because Clinton and Obama are both so well funded. Money is tight, and each campaign undoubtedly wishes it still had some of the cash it lavished on Iowa and New Hampshire. But both candidates can raise enough to mount viable efforts almost indefinitely.
Mostly, an extended race seems likely because Clinton and Obama have assembled distinct, durable coalitions of support. Through the first contests, Clinton has consistently run better among core Democrats, particularly less affluent and older women. Obama has done best with the party's expanding constituencies -- independents, young people, upscale "knowledge-class" whites. In last Saturday's Nevada caucuses, Latinos preferred Clinton over Obama by greater than 2-to-1. South Carolina results appear likely to confirm a comparable advantage for Obama among African-Americans.
Assuming these patterns hold, most analysts give Clinton a slim edge: Although Obama's best groups are growing, hers probably remain a slightly larger share of the party. If Obama is to reverse that precarious balance, the key, ironically, could be Clinton's peers: well-educated, relatively affluent, middle-aged women. So far, these women have proved to be the party's most conflicted major group: They broke for Obama in Iowa but for Clinton in New Hampshire and Nevada.
These women seem torn between empathy and exhilaration. Many are drawn to Clinton's historic quest. One woman in a group that gathered to make campaign calls for Clinton in West Los Angeles earlier this week, on the 35th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, described Clinton's bid as a "landmark" for women. But other upscale women respond to the soaring message of political transformation that has attracted so many well-educated men to Obama.
Whether educated middle-aged women initially lean toward Clinton or Obama, though, it's difficult to imagine another group more likely to be disenchanted by hard-elbows politics. These women have already gotten their fill of petty squabbles by refereeing arguments between their children. Obama and Clinton might think twice before repeating this past week's eruption.