Trench warfare for a party's soul

Democrats may face months of conflict as Clinton, Obama duel for final delegates

Email|Print| Text size + By Brian C. Mooney
Globe Staff / March 6, 2008

After 44 contests, 28 million votes, and at least $275 million spent, the race for the Democratic presidential nomination grinds on as an increasingly brutal struggle for the soul of a party riven along the lines of race, class, gender, and generations.

Surviving a near-political death for the third time in two months on Tuesday, Hillary Clinton claimed momentum yesterday after winning primaries in Ohio, Texas, and Rhode Island to stop a 12-contest Barack Obama winning streak. The results, she said, showed she would be the tougher, more seasoned nominee to take on Republican John McCain.

Sounding newly confident, Clinton even hinted at the possibility of Obama as her running mate. Asked on CBS's "The Early Show" whether she and Obama should form the so-called dream ticket that some Democrats want, she replied, "That may be where this is headed, but of course we have to decide who is on the top of the ticket. I think the people of Ohio very clearly said that it should be me."

Even with her victories, however, Clinton barely dented Obama's lead in the convention delegate count, raising the prospect of several months of conflict.

Obama's campaign repeatedly highlighted his delegate lead, contending that Clinton had failed Tuesday in her "last best chance" to significantly reduce the gap. Obama won the Vermont primary on Tuesday and was leading yesterday in incomplete tallies from the Texas caucuses, which were held after the primary in the Lone Star State, and will account for more than a third of the state's 193 pledged delegates.

And Obama, who said Clinton went "very negative" in the closing days, indicated he will respond in kind. His campaign started hitting back, asking what Clinton had to hide by not releasing her income tax returns.

Her campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson said the Clintons' tax returns for the years since they left the White House in 2001 "will be made available on or around April 15." Wolfson also responded by calling on Obama to "release all relevant financial and other information related to indicted political fixer Tony Rezko."

The Clinton campaign's aggressive "kitchen sink" approach in the waning days before Tuesday's quartet of contests included questioning Obama's experience, his credibility on foreign trade, and his ties to Rezko, a former Chicago fund-raiser now on trial on corruption charges unrelated to Obama.

The assault corresponded with a saturation campaign using surrogates, including former president Bill Clinton, who maintained a punishing schedule of seven or eight stump appearances a day. His participation had dipped after he was accused of trying to marginalize Obama as a black candidate before the South Carolina primary. Appearing primarily in secondary media markets in Ohio and heavily Hispanic areas of Texas, Bill Clinton conducted 55 radio interviews on Tuesday alone with local stations in Texas, Ohio, and Rhode Island, according to a Clinton campaign aide.

Her campaign also said that her messages on national security and the economy are starting to hit home, pointing to exit polling that indicated that about 60 percent of Ohio and Texas voters who made up their minds in the final three days picked Clinton, even though Obama outspent her in both states.

The contours of a more muddled nomination fight emerged as it moves to contests in Wyoming on Saturday and in Mississippi on Tuesday before the next big showdown on April 22 in Pennsylvania, where 158 pledged delegates are at stake.

Contrary to the Obama campaign's contention, Clinton's best chance to cut into his delegate lead may still lie ahead. Attention is focusing on the dispute over delegates from Florida and Michigan, barred by the Democratic National Committee from the August convention because the states broke party rules by moving up their primary dates.

Yesterday, the states' governors, Republican Charlie Crist of Florida and Democrat Jennifer M. Granholm of Michigan, issued a joint statement calling on both national parties to seat the full delegations and asked their state and national party chairs "to resolve this matter."

DNC Chairman Howard Dean said the states can either submit a plan to hold new contests or petition the credentials committee at the convention, but insisted, "We are not going to change the rules in the middle of the game." Party officials have been talking privately for months with leaders in both states about holding "alternative contests," either primaries or caucuses before June 10, to resolve the standoff. One stumbling block is expense, which would run into the millions of dollars in each state, neither of which wants to bear the cost.

Democratic candidates boycotted both states, and Obama's name did not even appear on the Michigan ballot. Clinton won both primaries handily. Even with the party's proportional delegate allocation formula, Clinton could slice into Obama's lead if she could duplicate her earlier victory margins in the states, which would account for a combined 357 delegates, almost one-twelfth of the full convention.

Clinton campaign strategists Mark Penn and Harold Ickes argued yesterday for seating the Michigan and Florida delegations, an essential part of the math if Clinton is to win the nomination. It was part of a memo in which they offered up selected polling data, historical precedents such as the importance of winning Ohio, and other theories to argue that Clinton is the stronger Democrat to face McCain in November.

Obama's campaign countered that he remains ahead by every yardstick - in delegates, the popular vote, and number of states won. Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod told reporters yesterday that "we would like to see Florida and Michigan represented" and would work with whatever method of resolution the national party approves.

The Associated Press tally has Obama leading by 105 delegates - 1,567 to 1,462. Other media organizations put the margin slightly higher, but both candidates are far short of the 2,025 needed to win the nomination and both campaigns acknowledge that neither can win enough of the remaining pledged delegates to win the nomination outright. There are 12 more contests between now and June 7 and a total of 611 pledged delegates at stake.

Much of the spin from both campaigns is aimed at the so-called superdelegates, the 795 elected officials and party leaders who may support any candidate. About 270 remain uncommitted to either candidate.

Looking ahead, Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe contended yesterday in an interview on MSNBC that the primary map favors Clinton in the remaining states, based on the demographic factors that have driven the results of most earlier contests.

"Pennsylvania sets up very well for Senator Clinton," state Democratic Chairman T.J. Rooney said on MSNBC.

McAuliffe also specifically mentioned Indiana on May 6, West Virginia on May 13, and Kentucky on May 20 as favoring Clinton. The campaign has said it also expects to do well in Puerto Rico on June 7.

States likely to be more friendly to Obama include Wyoming and Mississippi in the next week, North Carolina on May 6, Oregon on May 20, and Montana and South Dakota on June 3.

Brian C. Mooney can be reached at

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