Thursday, May 1, 2008

The toughness factor

Amid all the talk about the congressional superdelegates being the decisive agent in deciding the Democratic presidential nominee, a story Wednesday in strongly suggests that, in real terms, that contest for hearts and minds may already be over.

According to the story by Amie Parnes and Josephine Hearn, “Capitol Hill insiders say the battle for congressional superdelegates is over, and one Senate supporter of Barack Obama is hinting strongly that he has prevailed over Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“While more than 80 Democrats in the House and Senate have yet to state their preferences in the race for the Democratic nomination, sources said Tuesday that most of them have already made up their minds and have told the campaigns where they stand."

When Politico asked Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, an ardent Obama supporter, how the more than 80 committed-but-unannounced superdelegates are thought to be leaning, McCaskill got all musical on us: “James Brown would say, ‘I Feel Good.’”

Understandably, Team Clinton said that the uncommitteds were uncommitted for a reason, one that doesn’t necessarily favor Obama. ““Most [superdelegates] are concerned about Sen. Obama’s electability and are impressed by the fact that Sen. Clinton is winning the states that Democrats must carry if we are to be successful in November,” Clinton spokesman Phil Singer told Politico.

But the feverish lobbying for SD support has slowed dramatically.

“All the low-hanging fruit has already been picked,” a Democratic Senate aide told Parnes and Hearn. “The rest are waiting to see who the winner is or are doing what’s in their best interests. Most of the people that are remaining just don’t want to pick the wrong side.”

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Whatever the supers may have decided, there’s something they may well have considered as they made their choice. In the context of American power politics, it’s a counter-intuitive possibility but a possibility just the same.

Call it the toughness factor.

It proposes the following: Any candidate, the superdelegates may reason, can run and lead a presidential campaign when all is well, when things are going more or less swimmingly, when the ground game is solid, the fundraising is strong, when the polls are all in your favor, when there are neither skeletons in your closet nor a closet from which skeletons could emerge.

It’s another matter entirely when yours is a campaign under siege — when your presidential bid is facing a two-front war based largely on innuendo, guilt by association and character attacks; when your proposals and vision are mostly ignored by a sensationalistic press hungry for your next misstep; when the skeletons in the closet are largely manufactured by your opponent. It takes something special to persist in playing, and winning, a game in which your opponent moves the goal posts back every set of downs.

Right now, the supers may be thinking, Obama’s campaign is fighting its way through a character-building exercise, precisely the kind of relentless onslaught that will intensify between now and November.

If Politico’s story is accurate, a significant number of superdelegates are looking at Obama’s strengths — a lead in delegate count, states won, popular vote and cash available — and are inclined to add another item to his side of the ledger: toughness, the ability to take a punch and throw two more, the ability to outlast an opponent bent on doing nothing more than lasting one more round.

Clinton has tried to lay claim to the persona of Rocky Balboa-style survivor (with husband Bill as her corner man). But the fighter-on-the-ropes analogy doesn’t fit Clinton any more, if it ever did. She’s thrown too many punches to be the aggrieved party. The one uncontested claim she’s previously made — that she’s been in the ring longer than the other fighter — hasn’t even got any weight behind it. Irony of ironies: The very political experience Hillary Clinton says Barack Obama doesn’t have is political experience Barack Obama is gaining every day, thanks to Hillary Clinton herself.

In the next week we may see these presumably uncommitted superdelegates get off the fence they may not even be on. But if McCaskill’s intelligence is right, Team Obama's drive for the nomination may be more on the good foot than the public realizes.
Image credit: James Brown: dbking, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0. Obama: transplanted mountaineer, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

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