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Will Democrats Unite?

As the race for the Democratic presidential nomination between Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) drags on and each candidate’s supporters sound increasingly committed, Democrats are growing concerned that a prolonged fight will damage the party’s eventual nominee in the general election against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the likely GOP candidate. In addition, the striking divisions of the Democratic coalition — with many white, blue-collar and older voters backing Clinton and African-American, young, well-educated and affluent voters backing Obama — are creating doubts that the party will ultimately unify around its candidate.

"I think the race is reaching the point now where there are negative dividends from it, in terms of strife within the party," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a Clinton supporter, told The Hill Wednesday. "I think we need to prevent that as much as we can."

(Matt Mahurin)
(Matt Mahurin)

These concerns stem from some surprising exit poll results. In Indiana on Wednesday, CNN reported that 32 percent of Clinton supporters in Indiana would vote for McCain in the general election if Obama becomes the nominee. That number rose to 35 percent in North Carolina.

For Democrats, these statistics raise the specter of a divided party going into the general election. Many Democrats remember the battles of 1972 and 1968, when the fight continued into the convention and produced nominees - Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey in ‘68 and Sen. George S. McGovern in ‘72 — who lost badly to the GOP nominees.

"If it goes to the convention, that is a problem," said Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown University who studies electoral history and has written a biography off three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. "When there is a battle at the convention," he said, "the party that has it always loses."

This, combined with Clinton’s close to mathematically impossible route to the nomination and her continuing need to loan money to her campaign, provide fodder for those Democrats who want the New York senator to exit the race. McGovern, in fact, switched his endorsement from Clinton to Obama on Wednesday and urged Clinton to end her campaign.

"The prolonged primary race is clearly going to hurt whoever emerges," said Trent Duffy, a former deputy press secretary for President George W. Bush and current partner at HDMK, a Republican media consulting group. "The longer this goes, the more Democratic voters won’t vote for the nominee if it isn’t their candidate. It’s poisonous for them."

But it remains to be seen whether the prolonged Democratic campaign will actually hurt the party’s candidate in the general election. Little evidence beyond those few exit polls exists to support the claim that the Democratic race is damaging the party’s chances in November yet. Polling suggests the environment this year favors the Democratic candidate and many experts say calls for Clinton to exit now are premature.

Once the nomination is settled, they say, the differences between either Obama or Clinton and McCain, who has been out of the media’s eye recently, will unify the party. Obama, who is now better positioned to take the nomination, will gain the support of Clinton’s base of white, working-class voters. While the focus on the Democratic race might benefit McCain, because Obama and Clinton keep beating up on each other, it also stymies his campaign because he can’t develop a strategy based on his opponent. All this suggests that Clinton doesn’t need to drop out of the race — at least not yet.

"The focus eventually will turn to the nominee," said Mark Rozell, a political scientist at George Mason University. "All the advantages this year look to be with the Democratic Party. I don’t believe any of the polling data that suggest that many Clinton or Obama supporters will abandon their party nominee if it is not their own candidate. Once the choice becomes Democrat or Republican, they come back. It just might take a while for them to warm up to it."

The Clinton camp has, unsurprisingly, espoused this view. On Wednesday, Howard Wolfson, Clinton’s spokesman, was adamant that the prolonged race has increased turnout and excited voters, which is true. Clinton, he said, has no intention of stopping. When asked on a conference call Wednesday morning if there has been any talk of ending the campaign, Howard Wolfson, Clinton’s spokesman, quickly replied, "No. No discussions."

Later, Wolfson was pressed if Clinton ever considers if her prolonged candidacy is damaging the party. "I just reject that analogy out of hand," Wolfson replied. "We believe that this process has been good for the party."

Many experts agree. The political landscape heavily favors the Democratic candidate in November, said Darren Davis, a political scientist at Notre Dame. Pundits and the media are focusing the Democratic fight now, but that will change as soon as the nomination is settled and the Democratic candidate begins to draw contrasts with McCain. "You just can’t perceive Obama or Clinton in a vacuum," Davis said. "It is really difficult to compare how voters are going to perceive Obama and Clinton when McCain has not been the center of attention. Once there are two candidates and the failings of the Bush administration and some of McCain’s weaknesses are brought out, people will begin to assess the lesser of two evils."

"Right now McCain is being given a free pass," Davis added. "If there is one thing that will coalesce Democrats, it will be beating up Republicans."

Some Republicans see the Democrats’ nominating struggle as not entirely benefiting McCain. "It’s a double-edged sword for McCain," said John Feehery, a Republican strategist. "On the one hand it’s good that Hillary will continue to attack Obama and it’s good for him to learn what attacks work. On the other hand, Democrats are dominating the conversations and McCain can’t get in the news."

Moreover, McCain needs the Democratic nomination to be settled so he can develop his campaign strategy. If Clinton is the nominee, Feehery said, McCain will appeal to Reagan Democrats. If Obama gets the nod, McCain will target independents.

Even some Obama supporters have no problem with the long nominating contest. "People forget that we’re in May," said Dan Gerstein, a Democratic strategist who supports Obama. "There are five full months of campaigning left. That’s a lifetime in politics."

If anything, Gerstein said, the prolonged fight has helped Obama. "A lot of good has come out of this. Obama owes Hillary a debt of gratitude for testing him," he said. "Obama has been able to show he doesn’t have a the glass jaw that people feared. He’s a stronger candidate now."

Bruce Schulman, a history professor at Boston University who has studied electoral politics, isn’t so sure. "If Clinton had gotten out a month ago, you wouldn’t have had all of these attacks on elitism, Obama’s inability to attract white middle-class voters and the Wright controversy wouldn’t have been so prominent," said Schulman. "Obama certainly has been weakened and lowered by this campaign."

Gerstein, however, contends that the concern surrounding whether Clinton’s blue-collar base will support Obama is blown out of proportion. "The overwhelming majority of Democrats that voted for Hillary, the Reagan Democrats," he said, "will naturally transfer to Obama" because he is more in line with their values than McCain.

Still, as Kazin noted, if the Democratic race goes too long, a delegate battle at the convention would be damaging for the nominee. But unless her campaign turns very negative towards Obama, hoping to tear him down, Kazin doesn’t see a problem right now.

Matt Klink, a Democratic consultant in Los Angeles, also said a convention fight would be disastrous. Clinton, he said, should look for a "graceful away to exit" in early June. If she doesn’t get out by then, Klink said, "some red flags should go up."

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