Clinton-Obama: perils of a long Democratic battle

A duel that goes for months weakens the winner. Right?

Carlos Barria/Reuters
Both candidates there: Barack Obama spoke Saturday at the Virginia Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Richmond. Earlier, Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered her own speech.
Carolyn Kaster/AP
Clinton: She has about the same number of delegates as Obama, who won weekend contests in Louisiana, Nebraska, and Washington.
SOURCE: Associated Press/Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

Many Republicans think they may have gained an edge over Democrats by settling their nomination fight relatively early. Their reasoning goes like this: Presumptive nominee John McCain can now rest up, raise money, and hone his talking points for the fall's general-election campaign.

Some Democrats worry that this analysis is right. Their party is again demonstrating its love of damaging disunity, goes their thinking. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama appear poised to slug it out for months – leaving the eventual victor exhausted, broke, and ill-prepared to take on a GOP opponent.

Maybe so, say experts – and maybe not. Recent history shows it's just as likely that the winner of a tough intraparty fight will emerge toughened and energized for the fall. The key may not be the length of the Democratic campaign, but its nature and tone.

"It's really the circumstances," says Bert Rockman, a political scientist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "The Democrats, it's their election to lose, which doesn't mean they can't do it."

For his part, Senator McCain can now begin planning his convention balloon drop. Mike Huckabee may continue to campaign and even win state contests, such as in Kansas and Louisiana on Saturday, but the former Arkansas governor now is decidedly behind McCain in delegates.

The need for party unity was one reason Mitt Romney gave for his withdrawal from the race on Feb. 7 – and in the months ahead, unity certainly will have its advantages. The McCain camp can now rest and reformulate its strategy for the general campaign. It can raise money without worry about partisan competition and try to make connections with still-angry conservatives.

McCain will have time to try to exert authority over the various arms of the party's national organization, as well as state parties. He can travel abroad, meet foreign leaders, and appear presidential. He won't have to worry about making a gaffe under the pressure of debate with a party opponent.

Meanwhile, all signs continue to point to an extended, closely fought Democratic nomination battle. Senator Obama's weekend victories in the Louisiana primary and caucuses in Nebraska and Washington State sliced into Senator Clinton's slim delegate lead, leaving the two contenders virtually tied as they head toward contests Tuesday in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

Clinton versus Obama is shaping up as one of the titanic clashes of recent history, note experts. It's Walter Mondale against Gary Hart in 1984, Jimmy Carter versus Ted Kennedy in 1980, even John F. Kennedy versus Lyndon B. Johnson in 1960 – rolled into one.

"Right now, the traditional Democratic coalition is split exactly between them," says Gerald Gamm, an associate professor of political science and history at the University of Rochester in New York.

While that situation may be exciting for the media, it isn't thrilling all party leaders. Some have said they'll do all they can to head off the prospect of a brokered convention.

"The idea that we can afford to have a big fight at the convention and then win the race in the next eight weeks, I think, is not a good scenario," said Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean in a Feb. 6 broadcast interview.

But no one should be too quick to assume that McCain is now in a better strategic position than the eventual Democratic nominee, say some analysts.

For one thing, he is likely to fade from public view as media and voter attention focus on the Democrats' continuing competition. For another, he won't know who his opponent will be – and thus may have to plot two different approaches to the fall campaign.

And that might be difficult, given the candidates' different styles and political strengths and weaknesses.

"A campaign against Clinton would be entirely different than a campaign against Obama," says Allan Lichtman, a political historian at American University in Washington.

Historical evidence shows that an intramural challenge to a sitting president running for reelection can be poison – but that a fight within a challenging party makes little difference, says Professor Lichtman. In 1932, it took Franklin D. Roosevelt four ballots to win the Democratic nomination. He then crushed incumbent President Herbert Hoover in the general election.

In 1960, JFK battled LBJ in a bitter preconvention season – yet Kennedy eked out a win over Vice President Richard Nixon in the fall. And in 1952, war hero Dwight Eisenhower's contest with Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio for the GOP nod wasn't settled until the convention. Yet he won an easy victory over the Democratic nominee, Gov. Adlai Stevenson of Illinois.

The liberal Stevenson, a gifted orator, never truly unified the Democrats behind him. The party's conservative wing remained unenthusiastic about his candidacy.

"My advice to McCain is, don't get complacent," says Lichtman.

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