Spin Set, Let The Voting Begin

Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton toured Indiana on Sunday, both calling themselves the “underdog.” But as they barrel into the biggest states left to vote, North Carolina and Indiana, polling and conventional wisdom have set clear expectations that belie that label.

Obama, barring catastrophe, should win North Carolina handily. Clinton is expected, with somewhat less confidence, to win Indiana — and will likely be forced from the race if she fails to carry the state.

The two states are fiercely contested battlegrounds. Clinton (N.Y.) and Obama (Ill.) spent Sunday night at a local Democratic Party dinner in Indianapolis, and both planned to spend Monday morning wringing a last batch of votes out of North Carolina. Obama dredged up family connections in Indiana; Clinton pulled out a last-minute endorsement in the person of North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley.

But with just a handful of smaller states left to vote after Tuesday, the candidates aren’t looking to surprise voters or build traditional political momentum. Rather, they are aiming to impress a small but important audience: the more than 250 Democratic Party officials, or superdelegates, who have yet to publicly back a candidate. That means Clinton, who trails in the overall delegate count, is the one praying for lightning to strike.

“The onus is on her. She's got to do better than tie,” Clinton backer James Carville told Newsweek recently. “If she wins Indiana and North Carolina, she’s the nominee. She’s got to shock the system, and she may be shocking it.”

Obama’s aides said Sunday they expect Indiana to be close, downplaying Obama’s own earlier suggestion that the state would be the race’s “tiebreaker.”

Clinton’s aides, meanwhile, argue that Obama needs to beat her soundly in North Carolina to stanch his bleeding. Obama’s camp argues that Clinton needs to emerge from the day with a massive delegate cache amassed by big wins.

Most polls suggest relatively narrow margins. Obama led by 7 percentage points in North Carolina, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average Sunday; Clinton led in Indiana by 6 percentage points. Results on that scale would give neither candidate a dramatic boost in the delegate chase.

And so the audience for the day’s results and spin is clear.

“The only expectations that matter belong to the uncommitted superdelegates,” said Democratic consultant Jim Jordan, who advised Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd in his bid for president.
As if to emphasize that point, Obama spent the Sunday morning before the primaries in the temple of Washington opinion — NBC’s “Meet the Press” — demonstrating his ability to take tough questions about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor. It was a performance directed not at the voters of Indiana — indeed, it meant that he spent a morning without campaigning — but at superdelegates concerned about his ability to contain the political crisis.

A close look at the math reinforces the superdelegates’ centrality.

“On Wednesday, 93.3 percent [3,036 of the 3,253] of the pledged delegates will have been allocated,” said Matthew Seyfang, a former Democratic delegate counter. “Barring some truly bizarre turn of events, she has already lost the race for pledged delegates.”

Clinton’s real problem, though, isn’t math but politics: Besides the votes, she needs to win the spin wars and convince heretofore skeptical superdelegates of her right to the nomination. They’ll be looking not only at the outcomes in North Carolina and Indiana, but also at the breakdown of the votes.

“Clinton was never given a chance to win in North Carolina, so if she can get the popular vote margin down to around 5 points, it would be enough to show she still has some wind at her back. Clinton would also be hlped by improving her showing among African-American voters,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican who advised former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in his presidential campaign. “She can't continue to get throttled in that demographic and still make the case that she can bring the party back together in a general election.”

The 2008 Democratic primary season has contained only one true surprise: Clinton’s victory in New Hampshire. Almost all the other primaries and caucuses have emerged in line with polling, and with campaign and media expectations. Now, she could use another stunner.

Carrie Budoff Brown contributed to this report.