Who won Super Tuesday?

Posted in United States | 07-Feb-08 | Author: Roger Cohen| Source: International Herald Tribune

Voters go to the polls for Super Tuesday primaries in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, California.

NEW YORK: The defining day defined nothing. So who won Super Tuesday and now what?

I say Barack Obama squeaked a win. Hillary Clinton was supposed to have this contest wrapped up by now. Until a few weeks ago, she was the overwhelming favorite. The longer this goes on, the more Obama can establish his credentials. Already, he has turned a campaign into a movement fed by grassroots enthusiasm.

"If we're going to win, it was always going to be slowly," Samantha Power, a senior foreign policy adviser to Obama, told me.

But how slow is slow? Democracy is what the United States has been willing on the world, with mixed results. This inconclusive day of nationwide primaries and caucuses means it will now get a mega-dose of its own medicine.

John McCain reinforced his up-from-nowhere front-runner status for the Republican nomination without delivering a knock-out blow. He still has to convince his party's conservative base, split between the affable Baptist minister, Mike Huckabee, and the android businessman, Mitt Romney.

On the Democratic side, Clinton and Obama traded blows in a slugfest that could now go all the way to the convention in Denver in late August. This won't be pretty. You know the movie: cigars, whiskey, money and smoke-filled rooms in Colorado as a strange species of party brass known as superdelegates do deals.

I love it. After the fear, aloofness and manipulation that have been the coin of the Bush administration's realm, a district-by-district battle for the Democratic nomination is what the United States needed to reignite dulled senses and cowed hopes.

A woman and an African-American of rare talent are raising the political bar and ending business as usual just when America's image was most jaded.

Clinton took the large coastal states - New York, New Jersey, California and Massachusetts, where the Kennedy endorsement of Obama did little. Obama punctured her northeastern domination with a Connecticut win and demonstrated his appeal from Georgia to Alaska.

She won big but he won broader. A majority of the 22 states voting in the biggest primary day in the nation's history went to Obama. In bellwether Missouri, always a good guide to the political winds, he narrowly beat Clinton.

Among older white women, Clinton was dominant. Hispanics and Asian-Americans flocked to her in and beyond California. She tended to do better than Obama among poorer whites. But Obama was stronger with African-Americans, the young, rural whites who had sided with John Edwards, and the affluent. In short, the two Democrats still standing clubbed each other to a standstill.

What counts, in the end, is the math: not who won what state but who got closer to the 2,025 delegates needed for the nomination. The Democrats' proportional system makes that calculation cumbersome, but two things are clear: Clinton and Obama are almost neck-and-neck and far from the clinching total. But Obama has more cause for satisfaction than Clinton.

Money is pouring into his campaign - more than $30 million in January - at a faster rate than it's reaching Clinton. This could be critical as the campaign plunges on for months.

Primaries and caucuses over the next week in states including Louisiana, Nebraska and Maryland may favor Obama, on the basis of voting patterns up to now, and add to his momentum.

Republicans, likely to be led by McCain with his appeal to independents, are unanimous in saying they'd rather face Clinton than Obama. Many independents will never vote Clinton but might vote Obama. This calculus will weigh: The Democrats know they will seldom, if ever, get the stars so aligned for victory. Failure would be devastating.

Obama's fundamental message seems clearer than Clinton's and has begun to resonate. He repeated it in Chicago: "This fall we owe the American people a real choice. We have to choose between change and more of the same. We have to choose between looking backwards and looking forwards."

A Bush or a Clinton has been in the White House executive office for more than a quarter-century. That's a lot for a country trying to give lessons in the renewal and alternation that are the oxygen of democracy.

The voting today revealed that Obama has significant problems. Hispanics don't like him; women and the older favor Hillary. He has to sharpen his economic message, especially for lower-income Americans.

But it also revealed that his movement has permeated the country. Obama has not been "racialized:" White men like him. The Clintons face a fight unimaginable three months ago.

The longer the Democrats duel, the more Republicans benefit. McCain could shore up his conservative, religious and southern base by picking the buoyant Huckabee as running-mate. That looks threatening.

In making their own choice, Democrats now need to think carefully about how best to counter a more defined Republican challenge.

Readers are invited to comment at my blog: www.iht.com/passages