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Democrats have a big decision to make

NBC  News’ Washington bureau chief and host of "Meet the Press" discusses the Wyoming and Mississippi presidential contests and superdelegates
/ Source: NBC News

Msnbc: Tim, crucial Tuesday wins put Hillary Clinton back into the ballgame for the presidential nomination.  To what do you attribute Hillary Clinton’s popular vote wins in Texas and Ohio?

Russert: I think she closed very well. She won almost two to one for voters who decided in the last three days.  I think there was also Barack Obama’s difficulty on the NAFTA issue, where one of his aides kind of winked at the Canadian government.

Msnbc: When you add in the fact superdelegates could have a deciding hand in the race and the delegates in Florida and Michigan being penalized for moving their contests early, could the Democrats be heading toward a train wreck?

Russert: It’s amazing when you look at the math.  Right now Barack Obama has a 140 delegate lead among elected delegates.  Hillary Clinton has a lead of about 40 with superdelegates.  So Obama is up 100 in total delegates.  If you go through the remaining states, as we did in an internal meeting at NBC, and allocate the remaining delegates the way we think those elections might go it’s again practically tied.

So, you wind up at the end of this whole Primary caucus process with Obama up about 150 elected delegates and you have 330 superdelegates that are undeclared.  Obama would need 35 percent of those.  Clinton would need 65 percent of those undeclared superdelegates.  That’s assuming none of the superdelegates who’ve declared thus far change or that none of the elected delegates change – and they could change as well.

We are going to be watching this for the next 90 days, all the way to Puerto Rico on June 7, and trying to figure out what happens.

Everyone I talk to – everybody - says, “We do not know how to end this.  How does this movie end?”

Obama will go to the convention and say, “I have won more elected delegates. I won more contests.” - He’s won 27 of the 41 so far. - “I’ve won more cumulative popular votes.”

Clinton will go and say, “Here’s my bio.  I’ve won the big states – California, New York Ohio, and Texas.” – She hopes Pennsylvania. And I think then she’ll say, “I’m tougher.  I can take on the Republicans.”

I think the polls at that time will mean a lot – who is faring better against John McCain.  But in the end, it’s the superdelegates who will make a judgment.  Do they vote for someone who won the most elected delegates or do they vote for someone who has won the bigger states?

Msnbc: How does this affect voter confidence in the Democrat’s process?

Russert:  The potential is huge.

You had Michigan and Florida where all the candidates agreed the delegates would not count.  Hillary Clinton said last year the Michigan election does not count.

There very well may be do-overs in Michigan and Florida in early June. But even if there are do-overs and one of the candidates win 54-45 it doesn’t significantly change the elected delegate count.  You’d need to have a huge landslide – above 64% - in order to have enough delegates to start altering the equation.

The Democrats have a big decision to make.  It could leave a lot of people unhappy. If Obama has more elected delegates and is denied the nomination, the fear is come the fall a lot of the new voters, a lot of the independents, a lot of the young voters, a lot of the African American voters will just stay home and say, “We’re not participating in an election that was unfair.”  Or if Hillary Clinton is denied the nomination, a lot of voters – particularly white women over the age of 50 who make less than $50,000, her hard- core base – could opt to vote for John McCain.

The Democrats have to be very careful navigating this.

Msnbc:  Who will we see Sunday onMeet the Press?

Russert:  Tom Daschle, the former majority leader of the Democrats is backing Barack Obama.  He is Obama’s head superdelegate counter and recruiter.  And we’ll have Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania who is backing Hillary Clinton.  They will square off.

Then our political roundtable will put it all into perspective and focus with Dan Balz of the Washington Post, Ron Brownstein of the National Journal, John Harwood of the New York Times and Gwen Ifill of PBS's "Washington Week".

All Sunday, on Meet the Press.

Strap yourself in.  This is going to go for a long time.