Thursday, April 24, 2008

Clinton Did Obama a Favor in Wednesday Night's Debate

The Clinton-Obama ABC debate on Wednesday was almost universally slammed for being off-message, with almost an hour consisting of "Gotcha!" type questions irrelevant to voters. There is also consensus on Barack Obama's performance being his weakest in the now twenty one debates that have taken place during the Democratic primary season.

It is true that Wednesday night didn't exactly do wonders for him. However, it didn't derail his almost inevitable path to the nomination either.

What it did do is give him an excellent practice drill for what he'll be dealing with in the general election, when the Republicans come at him with full force.

This couldn't have happened at a better time. This was the perfect time to have this practice round for four important reasons:

1. Even if Clinton beats Obama by a 20-point margin in Pennsylvania and beats him by 10 points in each state that's left, she's unlikely to overcome his lead in pledged delegates or the popular vote - EVEN IF Michigan and Florida are counted as they are. That's without Obama's name on the Michigan ballot. Try it yourself: So he's got this locked up. Only a really big scandal - much bigger than Jeremiah Wright (which Obama survived), Bittergate, or Bill Ayers - could possibly convince the superdelegates to overrule his lead. Basically, if Obama had to falter in a debate, it's better he did it now than earlier, before he had a solid delegate lead; or later, when the Republicans will be lunging at him with all of their ammunition.

2. Obama has a lot of money - several times more than Clinton. His campaign raised over 30 million dollars in February - and over 50 million in March, at least 20 million more than Clinton. Most people agree that the primary reason he has managed to close the gap in Pennsylvania is that he has outspent Clinton three to one. His momentum after a better-than-expected Super Tuesday performance and during the string of 12 primary/caucus wins in a row in February allowed him to raise record-breaking amounts of cash. If any of the controversies that have plagued him in the last six weeks - coupled with a sub-par debate performance - had come up back then, he may not have raised this kind of money, and may have had reason to worry. However, this week alone, he will again have spent over 3 million dollars on television ads in Pennsylvania, which cannot be matched by Clinton.

3. The "Gotcha!" issues WILL come up in the general election. He will likely be swift-boated, 527ed, and attacked relentlessly by the Republicans. Hillary Clinton and moderators George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson did him a FAVOR by allowing him to "practice" dodging and dealing with these attacks at a time when, if he screws up a bit, it takes very little away from his almost inevitable pledged delegate and popular vote lead. Again, it's better that this happened now: any earlier, and it would've affected his chances of winning the states that he did. Any later - meaning after he becomes the nominee - and his first "practice round" would have been against the Republicans in the actual general election, obviously a big risk.

4. Many Democratic leaders, including undecided superdelegates (including one of Hillary's campaign advisors, in a gaffe) have said that there'll be a nominee by June. If they're serious about that, and there is indeed a nominee in June, it can only be Obama, for both mathematical and political reasons. If Clinton is the nominee, it'll have to be under extenuating circumstances, where the superdelegates overrule the pledged delegate lead somehow by coming out in droves to vote for her, and that is not likely to happen by June. The only way her chances become a little better is if the fight goes to the convention. This is why Clinton is going negative and attacking so much. Her only road to the nomination is to prove him unelectable to the superdelegates. There is no other way for her to make it.

Now, to win, Clinton needs to get the superdelegates on her side.

To get the superdelegates on her side, she has to prove Obama unelectable in the general election against McCain.

To prove him unelectable to the superdelegates, she has to attack him, and stress his negatives as strongly and as often as possible.

Because both of them hold virtually identical positions on issues and policy, the nature of these attacks has to be based on character deficiencies and compromised credibility.

The attacks damage him not only among Democrats and Republicans, but among independents, who John McCain attracts as well. This is the swing voter group that the Democrats need this time in November to nab the presidency.

Here's the question: how long will the superdelegates allow Clinton to skewer Obama incessantly as she's doing - when he's almost certainly the Democratic nominee? Are they willing to risk damaging Obama and blowing yet another opportunity to take the country back - for Clinton - who has a less than 5% (being generous) chance of scoring the nomination?

Democratic National Committee leader Howard Dean, who has intelligently picked up on this (as I'm sure many other uncommitted superdelegates have, or will very soon), has said that he wants "a decision now":

This realization is unavoidable for Democrats. Obama will be the nominee. The debate was great for him - it allowed him to see what he's in for, with the help of Clinton and the moderators. He didn't exactly hit it out of the park, but he managed to hold his own. Now, he has plenty of time to consult with his advisors to generate counter-strategies.

Despite what Hillary Clinton says, the media has actually helped her by treating this is as a "neck-in-neck" or a "tight" race, when it has been practically over for weeks. Democrats - including Barack Obama - should now thank Hillary Clinton and the ABC moderators for doing their nominee and their party a favor for once, by readying him for the general election.

Clinton will probably win Pennsylvania. Obama will win North Carolina - which should seal the deal for most remaining undecided superdelegates - that's my guess at where the race ends, if it hasn't already. It's probably time to forget about Obama versus Clinton and start focusing on Obama versus McCain in the general election.

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