Crunch time for candidates

SUPER TUESDAY

McCain likely to be Republicans’ choice; Democrats Clinton, Obama to face off.

A TITANIC battle looms.

In a historic first for the United States, nearly half of its 50 states will vote tomorrow in a presidential nominating race that has been anything but predictable.

The tables have turned dramatically over the course of the year-long gruelling contest. Debunking most forecasts, a large field of candidates has now given way to clean two-way battles for both Republicans and Democrats.

Where once the Republican Party was believed to be heading for a protracted battle which would end in a brokered convention fight, it appears now that the front runner, Arizona Senator John McCain, has been all but assured of emerging the nominee after Super Tuesday.

On the other hand, the Democrats seem to be on course for a drawn-out slugfest where once former first lady Hillary Clinton was seen as the inevitable choice of the party.

“It looks very likely that McCain will come out from Super Tuesday with an insurmountable lead and the clear choice for the Republicans,” noted Professor Thomas Patterson from Harvard, a leading expert on US electoral politics.

“The race is less clear for the Democrats and their campaign could drag on even more.”

The sheer size of the Democratic contest could favour Mrs Clinton. The New York senator has the support of the bulk of the political establishment and is better known than her closest challenger Barack Obama.

Mr Obama either won or came in a close second in four early states where he had extensive field operations and spent weeks in retail campaigning – an option not available to him now as he is forced to bounce among 22 far-flung contests.

Mrs Clinton also has crucial support from working-class whites – particularly older white women – and the Hispanic community. Both these groups prefer her focus on bread-and-butter issues such as health care and mortgage foreclosure.

But she has made a number of mistakes in recent weeks – including using husband Bill Clinton, the former president, as an attack dog – which has seen her commanding lead being whittled away.

She is running neck-and- neck with Mr Obama in key states such as California, New Jersey and Missouri as he mops up supporters of former North Carolina senator John Edwards, who dropped out of the race last week.

Clearly, Mr Obama has much of the momentum now, following his thumping double-digit win in South Carolina.

He has also benefited from high-profile endorsements, including those of venerable senator Edward Kennedy and Ms Susan Eisenhower, the granddaughter of the former president. Ms Eisenhower is the first prominent Republican to endorse the charismatic African American senator.

Mr Obama has also garnered support from independents and Gen Y voters in an election campaign where turnout has been in record numbers.

There is one other factor in Mr Obama’s favour: party rules, which award delegates according to the share of the votes that each candidate gets. Mrs Clinton has won 249 of the 2,025 delegates needed to secure the nomination, while Mr Obama has 181. Tomorrow’s voting brings an avalanche of delegates – 1,681 or 83 per cent of the total needed to be the nominee.

The Democratic delegate picture is complicated by the party’s nearly 800 “super delegates” – members of Congress, governors and about 400 Democratic National Committee members who are not bound by vote results and can switch their allegiance at any time.

For the Republicans, it is a lot more straightforward. Of the 1,191 national convention delegates needed to clinch the nomination, 1,023 are up for grabs in 21 contests tomorrow. Compared with the Democrats, Republican rules make many of their states’ contests a winnertake-all venture, in which the top vote getter scoops all of the delegates.

California, the biggest prize for both parties, is an exception for Republicans. It allocates delegates by congressional district, meaning a candidate can lose the state but still pick up delegates if he or she does well in selected regions.

Either way, Mr McCain is likely to steamroller his way to the Republican nomination.

The 71-year-old Vietnam war veteran – whose campaign appeared dead in the water just months ago – is the only Republican to have won three contested primaries (New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida) to gain the lead in the delegate hunt and build on his surge.

Long considered an antagonist to the Republican establishment, his victories have earned him the support of many members of the party’s old guard. The shifting dynamics in the Republican field has also helped him.

With former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani out of the fray, Mr McCain no longer has to fight with him for the same pool of voters – moderate Republicans and independents.

Another important factor is that ordained Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee is still in the race despite not winning any primary since Iowa. He still attracts a large number of the party’s conservative base – the same group that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Mr McCain’s closest rival, is trying to win over.

After devoting two years and more than US$35 million (S$50 million) of his own money to his quest, Mr Romney now faces the serious prospect of losing the Republican nomination to Mr McCain.

Tomorrow’s showdown looks set to produce at least one clear-cut outcome.

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