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Candidates up for the count

Has there ever been such a weird and turbulent presidential campaign in your lifetime?
/ Source: National Journal

One of the fascinating byproducts of this remarkable presidential campaign is that so many people, not just political junkies, are watching with rapt attention.

My 18-year-old, fairly apolitical son was recently grilling me about the race, and I found myself saying that there had not been such a weird and turbulent presidential campaign in my lifetime.

In fact, I told him I doubted I would ever see one like it again.

One candidate, Sen. , R-Ariz., saw his campaign decimated last summer, but he rose from the political dead, a feat nobody anticipated eight months ago. Apparently politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

When former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., could not fill the vacuum in the GOP contest, it allowed McCain to come back to life.

While many conservatives watch in an apoplectic state, McCain is now conducting a mopping-up exercise in his roller-coaster, nine-year quest for the Republican nomination. All McCain needs to do is get past former Arkansas Gov. , the chronically underfinanced challenger who has held on with grit and strong communication skills.

Even in this bizarre year, it's hard to imagine how McCain could possibly lose the nomination.

In dealing with McCain's success, Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham, among others, have passed the denial stage and are currently coping with stage two: anger. We can expect bargaining, depression and finally acceptance to follow.

But in the end, there is nothing so divisive going on within the Republican Party that an official Democratic presidential nominee won't cure.

Polls showing McCain running roughly even with Sens. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and , D-N.Y., with no other Republican remotely close, will ultimately bring all but the most hard-headed conservatives around.

On the Democratic side, while many expected a very competitive contest, who could have expected this?

With Obama's sweep this past weekend, he has effectively pulled even with Clinton in the delegate battle and he is building a formidable advantage in money. If Obama's fundraising remains at this level for long, that alone could change the delicate balance in this evenly matched contest.

Obama was expected to win the bulk of the delegates in the Nebraska and Washington state caucuses as well as the Louisiana primary, although his victory in the Maine caucus was considered to be less of a cinch. He is also expected to prevail in today's Chesapeake primaries in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

This should give Obama a respectable advantage over Clinton in terms of delegates. But Clinton is expected to be strong in Ohio and Texas on March 4, which should swing the delegate advantage back to her, albeit narrowly.

Given Obama's fundraising, wins this past weekend and likely strength today, he is very likely to end up the Democratic nominee if he can diminish or even thwart Clinton in Ohio and Texas.

With more than half of the pledged delegates to the Democratic convention already picked, and given the vagaries of the proportional representation system Democrats use, it's hard to build up a significant delegate lead. But once a lead is built, it is very difficult to overcome.

Colby College political scientist and delegate selection expert Anthony Corrado calls Wisconsin's Feb. 19 primary "the gateway to Texas and Ohio." Indeed, Wisconsin will likely play a decent-size role, as it bridges today's primaries and the March 4 Buckeye and Lone Star state primaries.

If Obama's winning streak continues through Wisconsin, it's entirely plausible that his momentum going into Ohio and Texas will prevent Clinton from having a sorely needed victory week. Should that happen, it would be quite hard for Clinton to get back in the race.

One school of thought is that if Clinton wins the number of delegates she's expected to in Ohio and Texas, she probably can win the nomination without having to depend on the disputed Florida and Michigan primaries. However, if Obama prevails, Clinton probably won't have the clout to force the issue on Florida and Michigan. In that case, those primary wins will become moot, and Obama will win the nomination.

A different view is that, considering Florida and Michigan are the third- and fifth-largest delegations to the Democratic convention, this issue must be resolved, no matter what the race looks like.

Another question is whether superdelegates are truly free agents or whether they have some moral or ethical obligation to follow the vote of their respective states. Inevitably, they'll have to make their own choices, and we shall see which way the superdelegates turn.

This race is so close that small things loom large. It's one amazing contest.