Every move that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton makes in the final weeks of the prolonged presidential primary shapes her legacy and will determine how united the Democratic Party can be in the fall.
Will voters remember the angry “shame on you” candidate who suggested that Sen. Barack Obama’s chief experience was giving a speech opposing the Iraq war, or the tough, driven Democrat who passionately said she would fight for health care and unify the Democratic Party when the primary season finally ends?
Depends on whom you ask.
Some Obama supporters say their opinion of the former first lady has seriously degraded over the bruising months of the campaign, but many Democrats who a few weeks ago worried that Mrs. Clinton was creating a permanent rift within the party by attacking Mr. Obama now say her scrutiny has made him a better general election candidate.
Democrats on both sides of the fight agree that Mr. Obama ultimately will be the nominee.
“Hillary Clinton staying in this race has made him a better candidate than he would otherwise have been battle-tested,” said Steven Grossman, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a superdelegate supporting Mrs. Clinton.
On the campaign trail in recent weeks,Mrs. Clinton has softened her attacks on Mr. Obama’s experience, instead focusing on a promise of unity and blasting the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, as offering little more than a third term for President Bush.
“This has been a tough fight, and I have fought it the only way I know how: with determination, by never giving up, and never giving in,” Mrs. Clinton told supporters last night in Louisville, Ky. “Not because I’ve wanted to demonstrate my toughness, but because I believe passionately for the sake of our country the Democrats must take back the White House.”
There’s a lot of speculation about what Mrs. Clinton’s political future holds — a run for New York governor or another White House attempt in 2012 or 2016, a bid for Senate majority leader, vice president or Cabinet member — but Democrats agreed yesterday that she will remain a top fundraiser and key leader for years to come.
Many party members, however, includingDNC member Nancy Dinardo of Connecticut, an uncommitted superdelegate, are troubled by some of the exit poll data showing Democrats divided between the White House hopefuls.
“I had hoped that by the end, one candidate or the other would be able to break into the other’s base of support,” she said, adding that she is optimistic that the party will come together eventually.
Kentucky exit polls taken yesterday showed that only one-third of Clinton voters would support Mr. Obama in the fall, suggesting that he has a lot of work to do to win over her base of support: women and lower-income white voters. He has made headway with Hispanic voters, however, and was winning that demographic in the latest Gallup Poll.
“There’s some hard feelings for activists that are really pushing for one or the other, and if your candidate doesn’t win, it’s hard to go over to the other side,” said Georgia DNC member Richard Ray, president of the state AFL-CIO and a superdelegate who said he will remain uncommitted through the final contests.
He thinks it will work out in the end: “Democrats are known to suck it up for the betterment of the party.”
Despite furor over Mrs. Clinton’s claiming support from “hardworking … white Americans,” racial tensions and people who think she has given Republicans ammunition to use against Mr. Obama, the Clinton brand name remains strong, Democrats said.
“How she performed in the primaries … will enhance her brand significantly,” Mr. Grossman said. “Hillary Clinton has done exactly the right thing by staying in all the way to the end.”
“She’s a leader, and she’s very passionate. She’ll stay in until the very last vote is counted,” Mr. Ray said.
Compared with the Republicans, whose outgoing leader is an unpopular president, the Democrats will have Mrs. Clinton and former President Bill Clinton as top boosters and fundraisers in the fall, party leaders said.
While Republicans and conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh have gloated that the Democratic Party is in such chaos that the bloodshed will help Mr. McCain cruise to victory in the fall, a strong counterargument is that the fight is good for the party.
“Some may see the millions upon millions of votes cast for each of us as evidence that our party is divided, but I see it as proof that we have never been more energized and united in our desire to take this country in a new direction,” Mr. Obama said last night in Iowa.
Others see a bright side to the long-lasting campaign. In previous cycles, the nominees have been mostly decided by the first-in-the-nation contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, which prompted Florida and Michigan to buck party rules in hopes of ending the influence those early states had on the process.
It appeared the battle would be over after Super Tuesday, but when that didn’t happen, voters across the country were treated to something they rarely get: having an election that matters.
As the Clinton-Obama race dragged on, dozens of states had their say and significant influence was assigned to states that have been ignored in previous years, such as North Carolina, Indiana and South Dakota. These states have been treated to multiple visits from the Clinton and Obama families.
Voter registration figures soared, and party leaders in every state said they see a great benefit in an engaged electorate.
“I am uncommitted and loving it,” said Bob Mulholland, a DNC member and adviser to the California Democratic Party.
He supported the DNC’s plan awarding a bonus to states that held their Democratic primaries later in the election calendar.
“This is great,” he said. “The Democrats have added a couple million voters to the rolls. In 2004, when New Jersey held the last primary of the season, we had 10 percent turnout. That was embarrassing.”
Now, the two camps have deployed resources and staffers to each state and territory, far surpassing the groundwork laid by Republicans before their nomination process ended in February.
The battle also has helped vocalize the national Democratic Party message, said Joe Sheeran, a spokesman for the Delaware state party.
“Had this race ended in February or March, the nation wouldn’t be out talking about health care, education and the economic crisis created by President Bush,” he said. “It’s gotten people thinking and talking about Democratic issues.”
Mr. Grossman noted that by the time the contests end June 3, more than 40 million people will have cast ballots for Democrats, and “every one of those who voted in the primary is more likely to vote in general election.”
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