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Washington diary: Trench warfare

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

The candidacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton refuses to die. She has been compared to the Duracell battery bunny that keeps on shuffling when others, powered by lesser fuel cells, have ground to a halt.

Hillary Clinton in Indiana, 23 April 2008
The Clintons have always been professional politicians

Less kindly she has been likened to Glenn Close in the film "Fatal Attraction", who is supposed to have been drowned in the bathtub but then comes back in one last terrifying moment, wielding a carving knife.

The simple but frequently overlooked fact about Senator Clinton is that unless there is an overwhelming reason to bow out of the race she will simply not go away.

Why should she? She has found her own voice and proved herself as a formidable candidate.

It is not for nothing that Sally Bedell Smith entitled her brilliant book about the Clintons "For the Love of Politics".

Politics is the family business - it runs in their blood.

The Clintons may have been trained as lawyers but they have always been professional politicians, who revel in the bare knuckle, brow-beating, arm-squeezing, baby-hugging business of getting elected and wielding power.

That's what Hillary means when she boasts about experience and tells her audience that she has been in the fight long enough to know how to deliver the knock-out blows against John McCain in November.

In effect she is saying: "I may not be about change. I may not embody the new type of politics, you all yearn for. But I am really good at the old type. In a nasty fight you want me on your side not the loping intellectual from Harvard!"

Her victory in big states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and California indicates that she may have a point - this is certainly the message her surrogates will be hammering home.

Gifted amateur

Obama by comparison is a brilliantly gifted amateur.

Before he became a politician he was a law professor and a social worker.

He is a politician who writes good books, which makes him the rarest of breeds.

His first book "Dreams of My Father" is a beautifully written, brutally honest account of his migration through the waters of multi-cultural America.

We have always known that they are the quintessential power couple, the unashamed masters of breaking eggs to make omelettes

One feels that if he was forced to bow out of politics he could easily find another means to earn a wage.

It is an image that accounts for much of his magic and it is one that he himself has carefully nurtured.

Who hasn't heard the self-deprecating story about how his wife Michelle never really wanted him to run and how she forced him to give up smoking if he did decide to enter the campaign?

Even if he lost the White House he would keep his lungs.

That relaxed attitude towards power has been replaced by hard-bitten determination to cling to it.

This may come as a shock to many of his adoring fans.

There is little that surprises us about the Clintons.

We have always known that they are the quintessential power couple, the unashamed masters of breaking eggs to make omelettes.

Family firm

They are to presidential politics what the Osbournes are to MTV, increasingly backed up by human props: the surprisingly beautiful Chelsea and the reassuringly matronly Mrs Rodham, mother of Hillary.

Last night in Philadelphia the family firm was back on stage.

In terms of numbers and delegates very little has changed in the last six weeks - Obama is still ahead.

His own team predicted in January that he would lose Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania, that he would lead in the delegate count and that this race would go all the way to the August Convention in Denver and they seem to be right.

Barack Obama in Indiana, 23 April 2008
Barack Obama is forced to remind voters he is ahead on delegates

The voters don't actually matter any longer.

It is almost impossible for Hillary to overtake Obama in the delegate count.

The senator from Illinois now needs to remind us of this on a daily basis.

The man who wrote the "Audacity of Hope" is forced to bang on about the tediousness of numbers like some electoral accountant.

This is not the stuff of poetry - Hillary has forced Obama to do prose.

Her hope is that as the campaign drags on he will look more and more like a conventional politician making conventional mistakes.

The Jeremiah Wright episodes and "bittergate" show that Hillary is onto something.

Super-delegates

There is only one audience that matters in this trench warfare and it is not the energised voters of North Carolina, Indiana, Puerto Rico or Guam.

It is the 796 super-delegates, the unaccountable conclave of cardinals, who can in theory vote for whomever they like, giving whatever reason they fancy.

This may be the most expensive, exciting and costly primary campaign in history but in the end it is these unelected electors who will decide who gets to vie for the top job in the world's most powerful democracy - how ironic is that!

In extremis, the super-delegates will do their deed at a so-called brokered convention, when they huddle in rooms and haggle over their candidates like traders over bags of rice and bushels of wheat.

The more likely outcome is that Clinton or Obama will wield their arguments to chip away at the super-delegates until one of them has enough to prevail.

An unconvincing victory for either Clinton or Obama courtesy of some begrudging super-delegates could fatally damage the Democratic Party in November

This is not what dreams are made of but is a recipe for resentment.

World War I ended one day after four years of brutal trench warfare caked in mud.

The Germans were stunned to hear that they had lost.

The humiliation of the Versailles Treaty added insult to injury.

The rest is history.

An unconvincing victory for either Clinton or Obama courtesy of some begrudging super-delegates could fatally damage the Democratic Party in November.

If the battle drags on too long it could leave too little time to heal the wounds.

All the opinion polls indicate that America is fed up with the Republicans.

There is a massive swing towards the Democrats.

In a special election yesterday a northern district of Mississippi came some 400 votes short of electing a Democrat.

This is huge news in a state that is devoutly Republican and voted 60% for George Bush in 2004.

Pennsylvania registered 217,000 new voters, the vast majority of whom were Democrats.

On top of that there were 178,000 "switchers", Republicans who have changed sides.

With a tanking economy, an unpopular war and a president who consistently scores the lowest ratings in the history of the Gallup organisation, the White House should theoretically open its doors to a Democrat.

As the veteran commentator Charlie Cook put it: "If the Democrats fielded a potted plant it would be certain to get into the White House."

But potted plants have no character and Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have plenty, and that's what the Republicans will be trying to target in November.

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News America which airs every weekday at 0030 BST on BBC News and at 0000 BST (1900 ET / 1600 PT) on BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).


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