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Democrats should tie McCain to Bush

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton should stop debating policies from the past and instead focus on who could best connect John McCain to an unpopular president.
/ Source: National Journal

's big win in Wisconsin last month suggested that the race for the Democratic nomination had reached the tipping point. For the first time, one candidate had found a way of taking votes from the other's base. Obama carried almost all demographic groups, including those that had owned up until then, such as voters making less than $50,000 a year and those without a college education. But Obama's victory also marked something of a turning point for the Clinton campaign.

Its decision to attack Obama on national security in TV advertising was the first time the Clinton camp explicitly questioned his ability to handle a crisis. This week also marked a turning point for press coverage of the contest. While parodies on "Saturday Night Live" of the national media's kid-gloves approach to Obama were overstated (it wasn't long ago that most pundits were calling Clinton the far-and-away favorite), this was a bad press week for him. He's had to deal with questions about his relationship with indicted Chicago businessman Antoin "Tony" Rezko, whose trial started this week, while also fending off reports that a campaign surrogate had told Canadian officials that Obama was simply pandering to Ohio voters when promising to make significant changes to NAFTA. Exit polls suggest that those developments may have made a difference in Texas and Ohio.

Clinton carried the 21 percent of Texas primary voters who said they had made up their minds within the last three days by a whopping 23 points -- 61 percent to 38 percent. In Ohio, she carried those voters by 18 points -- 58 percent to 40 percent.

The big question is whether she will continue to hammer Obama, even if it creates a serious rift in the party and causes lasting damage to the potential nominee. With now free to concentrate full time on setting the stage for the general election, will pressure from party insiders be enough to keep the Democratic nomination fight from going nuclear?

This also creates a serious superdelegate conundrum. Most of them had hoped (secretly or not) that Tuesday's results would give them an easy out. They didn't get it. The Obama campaign will argue that Democratic primary voters have already given the Illinois senator their stamp of approval. After all, Obama has won 25 of the 39 states (not counting Florida and Michigan) that have held primaries or caucuses. And, he will still lead the delegate count. Exit polling shows that Democrats see that argument as a persuasive one.

But almost 70 percent of Democratic primary voters in a recent ABC News/Washington Post survey [PDF] said the Clinton campaign should continue if she won either Texas or Ohio.

This would seem to ensure that the majority of superdelegates will refrain from weighing in until after Pennsylvania's primary on April 22.

Of course, this creates something of a Catch-22 for these superdelegates. They don't want to look as if they've subverted the role of millions of voters who have turned out at historic levels. Yet they also hate the idea of a primary that drags on while McCain gets to shape the parameters of the general election. More importantly, while Clinton rallies her supporters with talk of winning in key battleground states like Ohio, superdelegates are looking at national polls that show Clinton losing to McCain in key battleground states such as Iowa.

The bigger question, it seems, is whether all the attention on the Democratic nomination battle will ultimately give Obama or Clinton the chance to shape the debate for the fall. If they spend most of their time, as they have in recent days, debating the merits of a 1990s free trade deal and views and votes on Iraq, that seems to benefit McCain. After all, one of the things Democrats have going for them in 2008 is that their party is viewed as the agent of change. If they get caught up debating policies from the past, it only muddies the change message. If they focus instead on who would be best at tying McCain to an unpopular president, a protracted primary might not be all that problematic.