A Democrat fight to the finish

NEWS ANALYSIS

Hillary’s triumph further divides the party along race and gender lines.

THE Democratic race for the White House is heading for a fight to the bitter end.

Mrs Hillary Clinton’s stunning comeback in the Ohio and Texas primaries yesterday crushed rival Barack Obama’s month-long run of momentum, adding yet another twist to the historic contest for the nomination that now looks likely to be settled in a convention battle in August.

Her victories – she also won Rhode Island, while Mr Obama took Vermont – breathe new life into her flagging campaign, but come at a huge cost for the Democratic Party. They reveal deep fissures among Democrats that could undermine their chances to capture the presidency in November.

The Republican opposition, on the other hand, which months ago was ironically in disarray, now stands almost united. Arizona senator John McCain completed one of the most remarkable comebacks in modern presidential politics to become his party’s nominee.

As the Republicans begin to rally around one man, the Democrats are still at each other’s throats. It is a study of contrast.

Age, race and gender have cleaved the Democratic Party into two: Clinton Democrats and Obama Democrats. Surveys of voters leaving the polls suggested a revival of identity politics that has for so long troubled the party.

Mrs Clinton won largely among the whites, women, Hispanic and older voters – her traditional support base. And Mr Obama once again garnered the backing of black and younger voters.

Besides support fracturing along racial and gender lines, another concern for the Democrats is Mrs Clinton’s new aggressive style and negative tone that could leave the party polarised and cast a shadow in a general election.

In the run-up to the latest primaries, the former first lady and her team went into combat mode against Mr Obama, challenging his credibility, leadership and readiness to be commander-in-chief. They also accused the media of giving him an easy ride.

But the longer such attacks continue, the more divisive it will be for the Democrats. And it has got party elders worried. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, once a rival for the nomination, warned in a television interview on Sunday that escalating attacks between the two rivals “could be campaign fodder for Republicans”.

If the campaign stretches to June, or even to a contested convention in August, reuniting the party could be difficult for either candidate.

A deeply divided Democratic Party will give Mr McCain time to organise and consolidate Republican support, especially from conservatives still opposed to his presidential bid.

But it is not going to be a cake walk. He still has a tall hill to climb in what is widely seen as a year that favours Democrats.

Noted political commentator Charlie Cook explained that it is extremely difficult for a party to win the White House three elections in a row. Indeed, consider the past 60 years: In four of the five elections in which one party had held the White House for two consecutive terms, that party failed to win a third one.

This “time for a change” dynamic has predominated each time. The only exception was in 1988, when vice-president George H.W. Bush was elected at the end of president Reagan’s eight years in office. Going into 2008, President George W. Bush’s approval ratings hover around 30 per cent, 25 points below Mr Reagan’s 20 years ago.

“Bush’s presidency has been marred by scandals, an unpopular war, and an economy that is just barely skating above recession – hardly ideal for any party wanting to hold onto the White House,” said Mr Cook.

The Bush presidency is clearly an anchor weighing down the McCain candidacy.

That could be the ultimate saving grace for a fractious Democratic Party.

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