Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Footnote Primaries Begin

Days Until Bush Leaves Office = 251

West Virginia votes today in the first of what may reasonably be called the Footnote Primaries of the Democratic nomination process.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that the voters of West Virginia, Kentucky, Oregon, Montana, South Dakota and Puerto Rico don't matter, or that the outcomes in these primaries will not be important; far from it. But the importance of these primaries now lies not in their potential to determine the party's nominee - that question was (finally) settled in Barack Obama's favor last week by North Carolina and Indiana - but rather in shaping the end of the campaign and taking a big role in determining the conditions under which the Democratic Party begins its general election campaign. And the impact of these primaries could be crucial in whether the party and its nominee comes out of the gate against John McCain and the GOP roaring, or whimpering.

West Virginia, for its part, is expected to go overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton over presumptive nominee Barack Obama today. Not much suspense there, but the question is how the two candidates will spin the result. For example, if Clinton gains a 25 point victory and in her remarks tonight proclaims it as another victory of the little guy against the elitists, and does the same again after Kentucky next Tuesday, where she is also favored to win, and if Obama uses expected victories in Oregon and South Dakota to continue blasting Clinton for representing what he calls the Old Politics of Washington, then the Democratic Party is likely in for a miserable summer.

On the other hand, these final six contests can function as the opening of a strong general election campaign. No matter what the outcomes in the individual primaries, if the candidates opt for civility in their rhetoric and salute a Democratic electorate engaged as rarely before, then the process of unifying the party begins in earnest, and woe betide John McCain's Freeride Express.

It all comes down to whether the candidates are able to keep their eye on the ball over the next three weeks, something they have not always been very good at doing.

So these final six contests, while footnotes in determining the answer to the ultimate question of who will be the Democratic nominee, can still punch above their weight in raising, or lowering, the hurdles the nominee must jump to bring the party together under their banner. Call them footnotes in large print.

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