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Bringing the Democrats together

In a battle that has grown nastier by the news cycle, who's going to help heal the wounds of the party when the nominee is selected?
/ Source: NBC News

Decisive victories in four primary states Tuesday would likely give Sen. Barack Obama the Democratic nomination for president.

But there are ominous signs for Obama and his supporters that Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign will live to fight another day – or more accurately, live to fight at least another seven weeks.

In a battle that has grown nastier by the news cycle, some are wondering who's going to help heal the wounds of the party when the nominee is finally selected.

Two unlikely Democratic senators are poised to start the process: Jack Reed from Rhode Island, and freshman Bob Casey from delegate-rich Pennsylvania.

Rhode Island holds its primary Tuesday while Pennsylvania is the next "decisive" primary in April.

Value of neutrality
Reed and Casey are among 23 senators – almost half the caucus – who have not endorsed either of their Senate colleagues for president. And they, like all the other Senate Democrats, are also highly valued superdelegates.

The two men believe neutral Democrats may be best positioned to clean up the mess a bitter primary could leave behind.

Casey says for him, Democratic success in November would mean "real unity, not just consensus" from Obama and Clinton.

"A lot of democrats are a little slaphappy, a little casual and cavalier about how the general election will go," said Casey. "I'm concerned about unity here and I think it's going to be more of a challenge than people realize."

Reed realizes it. His neutrality initially stemmed from personal relationships with the candidates which made picking among friends difficult. But now he sees another benefit. 

"Maybe that's one advantage of being at this point uncommitted," he said.  "You can help that process along quietly. And if I can serve in that capacity, I'd like to do that."

Being a good sport
A running joke in Washington, D.C., is when every member of Congress looks in the mirror they see the face of a future president. That makes the reality of defeat much harder.

One senator, granted anonymity to speak freely about colleagues, put it this way: "It's very difficult, after investing your whole heart and soul in something, for your whole life in most cases, to suddenly have to say, 'Well, it's over. I'm going to be a good sport about it.’ It's tough. But essentially somebody's going to have to do that."

With Republicans all but solidified behind Arizona’s Sen. John McCain as their nominee, Democrats are still splitting their loyalties, energy, and money.

"If this campaign goes beyond March or April I think we're heading into some really dangerous territory because it's just going to get harder and harder to unify," Casey said.

While Obama and Clinton have both publicly committed to supporting the eventually nominee, Casey says "it's more complicated than people want to make it." He speaks from experience competing in three Democratic primaries in ten years, including a $30-million primary loss in a Pennsylvania governor's race. 

"It's one thing for Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton to work together [on] principles," he said. "But it's much harder to get your workers, your supporters to really work together and not just go through the motions. If we just have the veneer of unity and people going through the motions, John McCain wins." 

If Tuesday’s results don't yield a nominee, Casey's Pennsylvania holds its primary in seven weeks. And Clinton is ahead in the polls there.

Casey has promised to remain neutral through that contest saying the will of the voters is not the exclusive factor, but an important one, in determining how he'll cast his superdelegate vote.

Reed says he'll also use the results from his state as one factor that will "influence" his convention vote. Other factors include, "Where are the delegates? Who has the momentum? Who has the ability to raise the resources necessary to wage a very challenging campaign? And also who's going to have that combination of factors, personal and political, that gives us the best chance next November."

Casey says strong party unity can also contribute to a "resounding" White House victory. "It'd be great to elect a Democratic president," he said.  "But it's a hell-of-a-lot better to elect a Democratic president with a mandate."