Endless but revealing primaries

The long Democratic race may have fatigued American voters, but it has had its benefits.

The Democrats' presidential contest resembles the movie "Groundhog Day." You wake up the morning after each contest, and little has changed. One candidate's up, the other down, while each retains the same supporters, and Barack Obama leads by a nose. Shouldn't this be over by now?

Polls show that a majority of voters – of all stripes – say the Democratic primary has gone on too long. Let's call it a wrap!

Yet the grinding contest has had its surprising and necessary benefits. Americans have now seen both candidates deal with adversity before one of them gets hit by the GOP machine. That wouldn't have been possible had Hillary Clinton swept Super Tuesday back in February, or had Mr. Obama kept up his 11-straight victories.

The longer the race has gone on, the clearer the picture of the candidates' managerial styles and character became, though sadly, the discussion of important issues diminished.

Americans already knew Mrs. Clinton had mettle. They saw it when she was first lady, and if they were paying attention, in her Senate career, too. But it's quite another thing to bounce from the ropes as a presidential candidate.

This week Obama had his turn at a comeback. He won North Carolina handily, and lost to Clinton in Indiana by just two percentage points. His strategy was to face head-on the two big charges against him – that he's elitist and not patriotic enough. He publicly divorced himself from his controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and adjusted his campaign message and style to remind people of the humble chapters in his story.

What he did not do was mess with his core message of change. Nor did he wither or explode in the face of setbacks. He grew tired and annoyed ("Why can't I eat my waffle?" he complained to a reporter in Pennsylvania.) But Americans now know this about Obama: He's even-keeled when winds blow.

That steadiness has been reflected in a superbly run and well-financed campaign that, unlike Clinton's campaign, took the trouble to organize in the caucus states. His staff has held together even in difficult times.

Clinton's campaign has been roiled by personnel changes and hampered by its early strategy of "inevitability." Yet her adaptability would make Darwin proud. When her husband flubbed, he got pushed to the sidelines. She developed a populist voice that attracted blue-collar voters and fresh donations. By winging it, she gained altitude.

As for fresh insights on character differences, the primaries revealed an "honesty gap." Exit polls in North Carolina found just 49 percent of voters believe Clinton is honest and trustworthy, compared with 71 percent for Obama. In Indiana, it was 54 percent (Clinton) versus 66 percent (Obama).

Also troubling are the patterns of race and class divisions exposed during this long primary season. And Mr. Wright certainly poured gasoline on the race issue. But he may also have done Obama a favor by showing that the candidate represents a new way of dealing with race.

The country and the campaigns appear fatigued. But consider this plus: Obama and Clinton may be battle-scarred but either is also more battle ready to make the fall contest a better one.

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