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Bruising will go on for Democratic Party

For better or worse — and many Democrats fear it is for worse — the race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama goes on.
Image: Senator Hillary Clinton.
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton addresses supporters in Philadelphia Tuesday night.Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The New York Times

For better or worse — and many Democrats fear it is for worse — the race goes on.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton defeated Senator Barack Obama in Pennsylvania on Tuesday by enough of a margin to continue a battle that Democrats increasingly believe is undermining their effort to unify the party and prepare for the general election against Senator John McCain.

Despite a huge investment of time and money by Mr. Obama and pressure on Mrs. Clinton by the party establishment to consider folding her campaign, she won her third big state in a row. Mrs. Clinton showed again that she is a tenacious campaigner with an ability to connect with the blue-collar voters Mr. Obama has found elusive and who could be critical to a Democratic victory in November.

Mrs. Clinton’s margin was probably not sufficient to fundamentally alter the dynamics of the race, which continued to favor an eventual victory for Mr. Obama. But it made clear that the contest will go on at least a few weeks, if not more. And it served to underline the concerns about Mr. Obama’s strengths as a general election candidate. Exit polls again highlighted the racial, economic, sex and values divisions within the party.

To take one example, only 60 percent of Democratic Catholic voters said they would vote for Mr. Obama in a general election; 21 percent said they would vote for Mr. McCain, exit polls show.

‘Bloodying each other’
“This is exactly what I was afraid was going to happen,” said Gov. Phil Bredesen of Tennessee, a Democrat who has not endorsed anyone in the race. “They are going to just keep standing there and pounding each other and bloodying each other, and no one is winning. It underlines the need to find some way to bring this to conclusion.”

The Democratic Party, so energized and optimistic just a few months ago, thus finds itself in a position few would have expected: a nomination battle unresolved, with two candidates engaged in increasingly damaging attacks. At a time when the Democratic Party would dearly like to turn its attention to Mr. McCain, it now faces continued damage to the images of both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama.

That said, the fears confronting Democrats could be swept away reasonably soon. Even with her comfortable victory on Tuesday, Mrs. Clinton still faces significant, though certainly not insurmountable, hurdles to securing the nomination, and it remains possible that her candidacy could come to an end in as little as two weeks, when Indiana and North Carolina vote. Should that be the case, the Democratic Party would presumably have the time and the motivation to heal its wounds.

“We have problems going both ways, but that is going to get healed,” said Joe Trippi, who was a senior adviser to the presidential campaign of John Edwards, who quit the race earlier this year. “If it doesn’t get healed, we have problems.”

Still, the voting patterns on Tuesday underlined what has been one of Mrs. Clinton’s central arguments to Democratic Party leaders in asserting that Mr. Obama would have trouble as a general election candidate. Once again, as in Ohio six weeks ago, he is struggling to win support from the kinds of voters that could be critical to a Democratic victory in the fall. Mrs. Clinton posed the question bluntly on Tuesday.

“Considering his financial advantage, the question ought to be, why can’t he close the deal?” Mrs. Clinton said outside a polling place in a northern suburb of Philadelphia. “Why can’t he win in a state like this?”

Mr. Obama continues to hold a lead over Mrs. Clinton in the total popular vote cast, as well as in pledged delegates. Those factors will weigh heavily on the superdelegates, elected Democrats and party leaders whose votes will be needed to give Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Obama the 2,025 total for the nomination.

Still, there were some worrisome signs for Mr. Obama after what has been several rough weeks for him on the campaign trail. At the least, he would have some work to do going into the fall if he wins the nomination, a point made even by his supporters.

“The negative attacks have had a little damage,” said Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico. “I do believe it’s recoverable, mainly because of his theme of unity and bringing people together.”

Mr. Richardson, reflecting the general concern among Democrats about the campaign, added: “I also believe Senator Clinton’s negative attacks have hurt her as well, as recent polls have shown.”

The results of the exit poll, conducted at 40 precincts across Pennsylvania by Edison/Mitofsky for the television networks and The Associated Press, also found stark evidence that Mr. Obama’s race could be a problem in the general election. Sixteen percent of white voters said race mattered in deciding who they voted for, and just 54 percent of those voters said they would support Mr. Obama in a general election; 27 percent of them said they would vote for Mr. McCain if Mr. Obama was the Democratic nominee, and 16 percent said they would not vote at all.

After weeks in which Mr. Obama was pressed to explain what his opponents sought to characterize as disparaging remarks about gun owners and church-goers, Mrs. Clinton defeated him among those voters.

About 20 percent of voters in those groups said they would choose Mr. McCain over Mr. Obama in a general election. And Mrs. Clinton defeated Mr. Obama overwhelmingly among Catholics, a constituency that will be critical in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.

“There are issues people raise about him, and there are also issues they raise about Senator Clinton,” Mr. Bredesen said. “They both have great strengths and they also have weaknesses. The sooner it is we end this and try to figure out how to address those weaknesses, the better.”

Tough obstacles
Mrs. Clinton was quick to vow that she would push on to the next big races. Yet if the outcome threw her enough of a line to keep going, it probably did not do much to help her accomplish two top goals: narrowing Mr. Obama’s overall lead in the popular vote, or his lead in pledged delegates.

But Mrs. Clinton faces some tough obstacles. Her campaign is effectively out of money, and the results Tuesday may not make it that much easier to raise money. “She needed a big win,” Mr. Trippi said, “because a big win might spark the $30 million or $40 million coming into her that she is going to need to compete in Indiana, North Carolina, Oregon and West Virginia.”

Megan Thee, Marjorie Connelly and John M. Broder contributed reporting.

This article, The Bruising Will Go On for the Party, originally appeared in The New York Times.