Friday, February 15, 2008

EDITORIAL >>Which one’s lucky party?

Eight and a half months before the election, Republicans have identified their candidate and the Democrats are not close. For the first time in a quarter-century, Democrats are apt to go to their convention not knowing for sure who the nominee will be. Which is the lucky party?

Republicans are uniting behind John McCain, who is all but a mathematical certainty to win the nomination. By nightfall on March 4, the next big primary day, McCain will have the requisite pledged delegates to win. All the departed candidates but one have endorsed him. Even Mike Huckabee will throw in the towel on March 5 although he will want to keep going and keep the attention and the speaking honoraria flowing. Democrats, meantime, will be riven by the forces of two powerfully magnetic candidates, and some are wringing their hands, believing that there will be too little time to heal and confront the united Republican attack.

But look at it another way. From the Iowa caucus in January through the Potomac primaries this week, record throngs have turned out to choose between Democrats who ignite enthusiasm like no candidates in modern times while Republican voters have manifested no ardor for any of their choices. McCain won almost by default. Only when the field narrowed to him and Huckabee was he able to muster more than 45 percent of the votes except in his home state of Arizona, where he won 47 percent.

In Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia on Tuesday, 1,871,265 people went to the polls to choose between Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama and a handful of candidates who had withdrawn but whose names still appeared on the ballot. Far fewer than half that many — 789,674 — voted in the Republican primaries that day.

The margins between the parties have been almost that great in primaries and caucuses across the country. Only in Alabama, Utah, Arizona and Michigan have the Republican votes exceeded Democratic votes, and those by very small margins, except in Michigan, where Democrats did not campaign and only Clinton of the major Democratic candidates appeared on the ballot.
We would take Democratic uncertainty over Republican lethargy.

But the Democrats have a perilous situation. Because neither candidate will have a majority of delegates, the nomination will almost certainly be decided not by elected delegates but by superdelegates, the party leaders and officeholders who are designated as delegates by party rules.

Obama now holds a lead of roughly 50 delegates over Clinton among the 2,000 or so delegates who have been elected by caucuses and primaries. Tuesday, Obama will add to the margin with victories in Wisconsin and perhaps Hawaii. In the spring, he will win more caucuses in western states and probably North Carolina and Mississippi. In March, Clinton must win, decisively, in Texas and in the industrial heartland — Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Kentucky — to maintain her legitimacy. Victories in all those states would still not give her the needed delegates, but they would be a strong inducement to superdelegates who tend to favor her to stay hitched.

The party’s terrible dilemma is what to do about Michigan and Florida, two big states that the Democrats need to win in November. Clinton won those primaries decisively and those delegates would give her a lead today, but because those states defied party rules and held their primaries early, those delegates will not be seated. Denying those states a voice in the nomination will be destructive to the party’s hopes.

It would give Clinton a leg up if the party arranged for fresh primaries — even nonbinding plebiscites — in those states this spring, but it is not merely in Clinton’s interest to do that. The party and its eventual nominee, even if it is Sen. Obama, will need that legitimacy and those states in the fall.