Starting Gate: Just Asking

Let's stipulate the obvious – the only people who don't believe that Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee at this late date most likely are those inside Hillary Clinton's campaign. And even they are hard-pressed to make the argument for a path to the nomination these days.

But it is still remarkable, as the primary season winds down, how close Clinton has come – and how little it seems to be impacting the perception of Obama's candidacy. Regardless of what the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee decide this weekend about the delegate allocations in Michigan and Florida, the margin of victory for Obama is going to be slim.

Clinton may well have an edge in recorded popular votes (with a lot of creative math involved). And, if she wins Puerto Rico, Clinton will have won five of the last ten contests compared to two states for Obama. Even giving him South Dakota and Montana next Tuesday, Clinton still has had an edge in contests at the end of this process (Guam was a split).

And, while so much has been said about the "will" of the voters and the "rules" of the Democratic nominating process, there's simply no getting around the fact that this race will be decided solely on the backs of the nearly 800 free-agent superdelegates whose decisions are governed by no rules at all. Among pledged delegates won in the contests, Obama has a relatively slim lead of just 157, according to the CBS News delegate count. His total of 1,653 pledged delegates is nearly 400 short of what will likely be needed to wrap up the nomination.

So, this is a decision that ultimately is being made by party leaders, not in the kind of smoky back-rooms that so many once imagined would lift Clinton to the nomination, but in the process set up by the party. It's those rules which the Clinton campaign appears to be hanging onto – keep Obama under the threshold once all the contests have been held, then force party leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others still on the sidelines to crown the victor.

It all raises a couple of interesting questions. Would Clinton be hailed as the inevitable winner if the positions of these two candidates were reversed or would superdelegates be warned not to reverse the "will" of the people (the popular vote)? And what kind of shape would almost any other candidate in any other race be in had they cruised through the middle of the primary calendar then stumbled toward the end, losing states like Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana?

Of course, these are no ordinary candidates in the Democratic primary and it has been anything but a normal campaign. And, in the end, the best thing that might have happened to Obama is Clinton's candidacy because it appears to have both galvanized the perception that he is the rightful winner and has stifled concerns about his primary performances at the end of the process.

Around The Track

  • Obama's magic delegate number stood at 53 last night, according to CBS News' delegate estimate. With the endorsement of Oregon superdelegate and DNC member Gail Rasmussen this morning, that number just got a little smaller – at least for the moment. The number of delegates Obama needs to secure to win the nomination is likely to change this weekend with some decision on how to settle the Florida/Michigan mess which will push the total higher.
  • But wait a minute on those superdelegate totals. The AP reports Puerto Rico superdelegate Kevin Rodriquez is switching his support – again. Rodriquez originally supported Clinton then announced he would back Obama. Now, he says he's going back with Clinton. "I decided to switch because that's my right,'' Rodriquez says. Is that more evidence/encouragement for Clinton to take her campaign to the convention?
  • Obama tells the New York Times he's considering taking a trip to Iraq before the election – but not with John McCain who has offered to give him a tour of the war-torn nation.
  • If Obama does visit Iraq, McCain predicts he may change his mind about the war, according to CBS News' John Bentley. "Sen. Obama was driven to his conclusion by ideology, not by the facts on the ground," McCain said. "Success in Iraq is undeniable."
  • Pelosi tells the San Francisco Chronicle that she'll "step in" and settle the nomination herself if the Democratic contest continues through June. "We cannot take this fight to the convention," she told the paper. "It must be over before then."
  • McCain's rejection of the support of evangelical leaders like John Hagee and Rod Parsley may hurt him among that crucial block of support reports the Washington Post.
  • Media mogul Rupert Murdoch is predicting a huge year for Democrats and what he calls the Obama "phenomenon," reports AP. "You have got the Obama phenomenon," he said. "You have got, undoubtedly, a recession ... The average American is really getting hurt financially and that all bodes well for him."