By Robert D. Novak
The Washington Post
Monday, March 24, 2008; Page A13
Barack Obama‘s speech last week, hastily prepared to extinguish the firestorm over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, won critical praise for style and substance but failed politically. By elevating the question of race in America, the front-running Democratic presidential candidate has deepened the dilemma created by his campaign’s success against the party establishment’s anointed choice, Hillary Clinton.
Superdelegates, though they were inclined toward Clinton as recently as three months ago, now flinch at the idea of rejecting Obama. They fear antagonizing African Americans, who have become the hard-core Democratic base. But what if national polls continue their post-Wright trend and show Obama trailing both Clinton and Republican John McCain in popular support? The Obama strategists’ hope of reversing that trend depends on whether his eloquent race speech, which he continued to reprise on the campaign trail all week, can overcome videos exposing his pastor’s demagoguery.
Thanks to proportional representation, which was enacted as part of radical Democratic reform a generation ago, no candidate can replicate George McGovern‘s nomination victory in 1972 by capturing winner-take-all primaries. It is not possible for Clinton to score large enough victories in the remaining nine primaries (starting with Pennsylvania on April 22) to move ahead of Obama in delegates or the accumulated popular vote. Those goals became unreachable with the apparent Clinton failure to force a revote in Michigan and Florida.
That means Clinton must convince superdelegates that Obama is not electable — validating this judgment by a neutral Democratic leader: “It was a great speech, but it cannot overcome the powerful [Wright] video.” Since Obama’s race declaration, he has fallen behind McCain nationally in various polls and trails by as much as eight percentage points in Rasmussen tracking.
In head-to-head tests with Clinton, he is two points behind in Rasmussen tracking and has slipped in other surveys, though he is still leading. Polls in Pennsylvania taken before Obama’s speech Tuesday showed that Clinton’s narrow lead had expanded to double digits, and private surveys since then indicate the margin is growing.
To combat that, the Obama high command privately contacted superdelegates Friday to report that his Pennsylvania and Indiana polling numbers have “come back” (without specifying by how much). Obama agents are also trying to minimize the distinctiveness of his embrace with Wright by distributing photos and letters showing Bill Clinton‘s contacts with the Chicago preacher in 1998, when the president was wooing friendly clergymen in his campaign against impeachment.
The problem for Obama is that furor over Wright has reached beyond voters normally interested in political controversies. Over the past week, I have been asked repeatedly by non-political people about Obama’s connection with Wright’s tirades. In the process, Obama’s political persona has been altered — transformed from Harvard Law Review to South Side activist, as described by one friendly Chicago politician.
The Clinton campaign has shied away from official comment about Wright. But in off-the-record talks with superdelegates, Clinton’s agents claim that the connection casts doubt on Obama’s electability. Furthermore, one Democratic operative who is inclined toward Obama warns that the issue will be raised in much harsher terms by Republicans during the general election campaign. In last week’s Clinton conference call with the media, senior adviser Harold Ickes questioned “whether Senator Obama is going to be able to stand up to the Republican attack machine.”
The consensus among knowledgeable Democrats is that Obama will win over enough superdelegates to clinch the nomination before the national convention in August, partly because of fear about the consequences if he does not. But one longtime associate said this of the Clintons in private conversation last week: “They will do anything — anything — to get nominated.” That reminder deepens the Democratic dilemma.