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For Democrats, it's a race again
San Francisco Chronicle


March 06, 2008

WASHINGTON -- The attacks on Sen. Barack Obama's credibility, ethics and experience that pushed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to a convincing victory in swing-state Ohio and helped her cling to Texas came back full circle the day after.

Within hours, the Obama campaign struck back at Clinton's perceived penchant for secrecy and by late Wednesday had Mississippi surrogates accuse her of making "derogatory comments" about the South.

"She talked about change you can Xerox," said top Obama strategist David Axelrod. "Well you can Xerox your tax returns." Calling Clinton a "habitual nondiscloser," Axelrod suggested the tax documents might reveal shady sources of the $5 million Clinton loaned her struggling campaign last month.

Fasten your seat belts, Democrats, this race has just begun -- again.

"Little Super Tuesday" turned out to be no more decisive than big Super Tuesday a month ago.

Although both campaigns agree that Obama has a possibly insurmountable lead of pledged delegates -- the kind elected by voters -- veteran election hands say he cannot cinch the majority needed for the Democratic presidential nomination on those delegates alone, any more than Clinton can.

Nor can he win the nomination by losing big primaries, despite heavily outspending Clinton, in states like Ohio that decide national elections.

Suddenly, there is renewed interest in redoing the Michigan and Florida contests. On Wednesday, the governors of both states said they would consider it. Both campaigns indicated they were open to the idea.

With a combined 376 delegates at stake, these states could now decide the race. It would be the height of irony: After being stripped of their delegates as punishment for holding early contests, they would now be rewarded with the chance, potentially, to choose the Democratic nominee.

Without question, the race will continue at least through the Pennsylvania primary seven weeks away, a blue-collar state that heavily favors Clinton, with stops at a Wyoming caucus Saturday and a Mississippi primary Tuesday where Obama is expected to prevail. Expect seven weeks of hard-hitting attacks from both candidates that mine every perceivable weakness.

The Obama sally in heavily black Mississippi arrived late Wednesday, when the campaign's state chair, former Gov. Ray Mabus, called attention to "Sen. Clinton's derogatory comments," referring to a newspaper quote from last October where she expressed shock that neither Iowa nor Mississippi had elected a female governor, senator or member of Congress, adding, "How can Iowa be ranked with Mississippi?" Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree accused Clinton of a "dismissive attitude toward the South."

Emotions appear to be hardening among partisans in both camps, replacing the sense of elation of just a few weeks ago when Democrats enthusiastically said they would be thrilled with either candidate.

"I think the Clinton people decided that going negative was going to pay a benefit for them; maybe it did," said Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat and superdelegate who backs Obama. "But she cannot raise questions that she's the only fully vetted candidate and then not release her tax returns when she's loaning her campaign $5 million and her husband is engaged in business deals with various (people) of questionable character in different countries of the world."

Clinton backers see a route to the nomination that leads through the final contest in Puerto Rico on June 7, and new contests in Michigan and Florida, which Clinton "won" before -- although the votes didn't count -- and will probably agree to compete in again, given their concentrations of blue-collar, Latino and elderly voters that seem to favor her. If she remains behind in pledged delegates, then the decision will be up to superdelegates, the elected officials and party insiders who are automatic delegates free to vote as they choose. Clinton backers believe superdelegates will base their decision not only on pledged delegates, but also on momentum and electability.

"What the Obama people are doing is saying, 'Oh, it's mathematically impossible,' " for Clinton to win the nomination with pledged delegates, said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California superdelegate and Clinton backer. "I don't think this is mathematics. I think this race is about people, how people look at the election, how they see the future, the candidate that they see can help them with their future. So I think it's a very, very variable thing."

Conventional wisdom says the coming fight will be so ugly that Sen. John McCain of Arizona, now the official Republican nominee, will stroll into the Oval Office while Democrats are not looking.

But GOP political guru Karl Rove warned Republicans that quite the opposite could happen. The riveting Democratic contest is already obliterating news coverage of the comparatively soporific GOP campaign. Rove said McCain will drop off front pages as long as the fight continues.

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