Democrats' primary battle takes toll, but long view looks rosy

Clinton's positive rating has dropped, while Obama's image as a uniter has taken a hit.

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
Democratic presidential hopefuls Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. BarackObama arrive at a debate at Cleveland State University in Cleveland,Feb. 26.

In the short run, the Democratic Party is paying a high price for its fiercely contested presidential nomination race.

Instead of taking aim at presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama have trained their sights mostly on each other. Calls for Senator Clinton to drop out of the race have sown resentment among her supporters, while Senator Obama still faces questions over his affiliation with a preacher now famous for incendiary remarks.

Both Clinton and Obama are taking a hit in their poll numbers. Clinton, fresh from the embarrassing revelation that she had misremembered landing under sniper fire on a trip to Bosnia in 1996, is now viewed positively by only 37 percent of voters, according to the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. Obama's positive rating has held mostly steady – now 49 percent in the same poll – but following the flap over his former pastor, his image as a uniter has declined. A CBS poll shows 52 percent of voters believe Obama would unite the country, down from 67 percent last month.

Perhaps most alarming for the Democratic Party, several polls also show that at least 20 percent of Democrats would vote for Senator McCain in November if their preferred Democrat does not get the nomination. If such a high defection rate were to hold all the way to November, that could hand the election to McCain.

"A lot of this is fallout from this dragging on too long and from open sores that are smarting," says John Zogby, an independent pollster. "It's going to be difficult healing these wounds."

Still, there are two ways to look at this, analysts say. One is to say, if it's this ugly in March, imagine how bad it will be if the nomination race drags all the way to June, when the final contests are held, or even to the convention in August. The other is to stand back and say: It's only March. Once the Democrats have a nominee – even if that's not decided until August – the party will rally around him or her and have plenty of time to take on McCain.

"Of course Democrats are concerned," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. "They'd love to have a nominee organizing for the fall. And they are concerned about the vicious things being said back and forth."

Still, he adds, "I'll bet you a dollar to your dime that the Democrats come back together and unite behind their candidate…. In the end, it's the big things that matter. People will vote on the economy and the war and their feelings about President Bush and their feelings about the two candidates, period."

Other factors weigh in the Democrats' favor for the fall: their large fundraising advantage and record-breaking turnout in primaries and caucuses, far surpassing Republican turnout when the GOP nomination race was still competitive.

The news this week that Democratic voter registration in Pennsylvania has surged to record levels, more than 4 million, compared with Republican registration of 3.2 million also bodes well for the Democrats. Some of those new "Democrats" are reportedly Republicans who plan to vote for Clinton to keep the Democratic nomination race going, but analysts say mischiefmakers are not a large part of the total.

The registration numbers out of Pennsylvania "may be the most underrated news of the week," says independent pollster Del Ali.

Nationwide, voter self-identification also shows a major tilt toward the Democrats. According to the Pew Research Center, voters who call themselves Democrats or independents who lean Democratic now outnumber Republicans and Republican leaners by 14 points – 51 percent to 37 percent. That's up from just a three-point gap four years ago. The wider voter-ID gap is a result of declining identification with the GOP, not a rise in identification with the Democrats.

Given the fertile territory for Democrats in this presidential election cycle, there's little wonder that Clinton is showing no inclination to drop out. Even though she trails Obama in the delegate count and overall popular vote in the nominating contests so far – and faces practically impossible mathematical odds in her efforts to catch him in the remaining contests – neither will Obama finish the primaries with the overall delegate count needed to secure the nomination. It will all come down to the superdelegates, the party leaders and elected officials who can back whomever they want.

Obama supporters have argued strenuously that superdelegates should back the "will of the people" and fall in behind the candidate with the most "pledged delegates" – those won in primaries and caucuses – which will almost certainly be Obama. Otherwise, they warn of a revolt by Obama supporters.

Clinton's supporters are "waiting for a miracle," says Tom Daschle, a former Senate Democratic majority leader and an Obama supporter. By staying in the race, he adds, Clinton is "creating a far greater problem for the Democrats this fall by dividing the party. This race is over for all intents and purposes."

Clinton, speaking to Time magazine on Tuesday, said she sees no evidence that her staying in the race is hurting the Democrats' chances in the fall. "You know, it is clear that there's a lot of excitement and energy in this campaign," she said. "The people who are supporting me sure don't want to see it over."

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