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So where do we stand now?
The US media punditocracy is virtually unanimous in declaring that, with a thumping loss to Obama in North Carolina and a skin-of-her-teeth win in Indiana, Hillary Clinton’s presidential prospects have swirled irretrievably down the drain.
Mathematical calculations indicate that even if she were to win all six remaining primaries (which is highly unlikely) by whopping 70 per cent margins (which is unlikelier still) she would still come to the Denver nominating convention in August trailing behind Barack Obama.
And, if the two of them were to split the remaining uncommitted super delegates 50-50, again, Clinton wouldn’t have the numbers to get her over the top.
In an interview on US television on Thursday, Obama wouldn’t come right out and say he was the party’s presumptive nominee, but he came close. Saying Clinton is “no pushover”, he left open the possibility of inviting Clinton to join him on the ticket as vice-presidential nominee.
He is now focusing on getting more of the remaining uncommitted super delegates to publicly come out for him.
Old George McGovern, no stranger to colossal political defeats (he very convincingly lost the 1972 presidential election to Richard Nixon), switched his allegiance from Hillary to Barack on Wednesday and told her she should give it up.
Clinton’s fund-raising efforts have flagged so badly that she has had to pony up another $6.4m of her own cash.
But when reporters asked Howard Wolfson, Clinton’s campaign communications chief, whether Clinton was even talking about the possibility of getting out of the race, he snapped: “No.”
The race card
Apparently, nobody can make the Obliterator quit. In a troubling and potentially explosive new spin on the poll results in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana, Clinton is now openly saying white working-class Americans won’t vote for Obama.
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Putting the race in blunt, racially-defined terms, Clinton told the newspaper USA Today: “Senator Obama’s support among working, hard-working, Americans, white Americans, is weakening,” adding that white voters in North Carolina and Indiana who hadn’t attended college were supporting her.
She makes the case that this group of voters will be key to a Democratic victory over Republican John McCain in the fall.
It is true that Obama has less support than Clinton among white voters – he picked up a little over 30 per cent of white votes in Indiana. On the other hand, Clinton has virtually no support whatsoever among black voters.
Democratic strategists warn that if Clinton pursues a racially divisive strategy in the remaining primaries, the remaining uncommitted delegates may stampede to Obama.
The whole, long-drawn-out, self-immolating Democratic death march reminds me of an old Irish limerick:
There once were two cats of Kilkenny
Each thought there was one cat too many
So they fought and they hit
And they scratched and they bit
‘Til instead of two cats there weren’t any!
As for Obama, he seems to be benefitting as much from a desire on the part of Democratic voters to end this thing than from any stellar stump performances of his own.
In Indiana and North Carolina he sometimes seemed tentative and tired, as though his heart wasn’t fully in the game.
Doing all the let’s-pretend-we’re-ordinary-folks play-acting that is obligatory to office-seekers (quaffing beer, slinging hash, shooting baskets) just doesn’t seem to come naturally to the cerebral Harvard-trained Obama, even though, of all three remaining candidates, he comes from the humblest background. John McCain, the wealthy son of an admiral and graduate of the US Naval Academy, is the true elitist in this race.
Obama has also been hurt, politically and personally, by the race-baiting antics of his former minister Jeremiah Wright, a man of such towering self-regard that he seems to think his own ego comes before an historic chance for African Americans to see one of their own in the White House.
After the North Carolina results came in, however, Obama gave one of his best speeches in weeks. He noticeably larded his rhetoric with plenty of patriotic platitudes and all-American affirmations, obviously to combat the enduring perception that he is a flag-hating pseudo-foreigner.
In the weeks ahead, Obama is favoured to win in Oregon, South Dakota and Montana, and Clinton is likely to win West Virginia, Kentucky and Puerto Rico – not a state, but a self-governing Commonwealth in association with the United States, the citizens of which cannot vote in US presidential elections.
Clinton may yet decide to go all the way to Denver, and stage a fight to seat the disputed Florida and Michigan delegations, covering the floor of the convention hall in blood and gore (metaphorically, one hopes), but at this stage, I am hesitantly willing to wager the whole thing will end in early June. Even Clinton’s campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe, is now saying that the race will end then.
The last polls close in western Montana on June 3. I’ll be there, in Big Sky Country, waiting to tell you about those final returns, and about what comes after.
My dear international readers, how can I explain to you how we Americans feel about our states?
Back in the beginning, this country was conceived and formed, not as a single entity, but as a collection of states existing uneasily together under a distant federal government, each jealously guarding its prerogatives and promoting its own identity.
This tendency was more pronounced in earlier eras, with deadly effect: the greatest military cataclysm in American history, the Civil War, is still known as the War Between the States.
What inter-state conflicts that exist now mostly take the form of quaint college football rivalries.
Still, each state has its very own flag, song, motto, representative bird, insect and alcoholic beverage. The legislature of my adopted state of Maryland recently declared a spongy multi-layered confection whipped up by the housewives of remote Smith Island as the official state cake.
Most Americans seem to feel an immense pride in and affection for their states.
During this long, long Democratic primary season, whenever the Al Jazeera political coverage commando unit is preparing its descent on the next state, one of my colleagues will pen a detailed and widely distributed email filled with insights, facts, and analysis about his or her home state, with subject fields such as, The Truth About Pennsylvania or What’s The Deal With North Carolina?
Which brings me to Indiana, my very own natal state.
Middling Indiana, always in the second or third tier of states, with nothing particularly remarkable to boast of – verdant, farm-flecked and flat, for the most part quite pleasant and quite a boring place.
Hoosiers (the nick-name for Indiana residents that has resisted the most diligent attempts by etymologists to determine its derivation) are known as stolid, sensible, all-American, conservative types, firmly rooted in the rich soil abutting the banks of the mighty Wabash.
|Clinton addresses workers at Lloyd McBride
My own forebears, however, hailed not from the bucolic Indiana of James Whitcomb Riley or Booth Tarkington.
All my ancestors appear to have gotten off the boat from Ireland and headed directly to that part of Indiana known as the Calumet Region, way up there in the northwest corner, also known as Lake County, hemmed in by Chicago, Lake Michigan and the Indiana Dunes.
And let me tell you, the Calumet Region of my childhood had little in common with the rest of Indiana. It was (and to an extent still is) a big, industrial, urbanised, factory-ridden, chemical-manufacturing, steel-milling, oil-refining blast furnace of a place.
As the next-door neighbour to the City of Big Shoulders (Chicago), it acquired the somewhat less heroic nickname, the Armpit of America.
Its grimy towns of Gary, Hammond, East Chicago and Whiting were inhabited not by the hayseed, tobacco-chewing rustics of the rest of the Indiana, but a motley immigrant mix of Irish, Italians, Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Serbs, African Americans, Hispanics and who knows what else.
They are a hard-living, heavy-eating, hard-drinking bunch. In times past, they laboured and sweated in places like Inland Steel, Edward Valve, and the Champion Rivet Company.
Of course, I haven’t actually lived there since I was a kid. And, sadly, over the past few decades the United States business establishment and government have gleefully and heedlessly dismantled the country’s industrial infrastructure in search of dirt-cheap Chinese labour, increased quarterly profits and higher executive salaries, without regard for the immense pain it has caused American workers and their families.
Like many once-proud industrial areas where men and women made things for a living, instead of serving fancy coffee or dreaming up advertising copy, the region has suffered massive job losses and a major blow to its self image.
How appropriate it was, somehow, that on Tuesday night it was poor old downtrodden Lake County, Indiana, that kept the whole country up past its bedtime, waiting to see whether Obama would snatch a surprise upset victory from Clinton.
The vote-counting went on for five hours after the polls closed, long after the rest of the state had neatly tallied its votes.
But as Lake County returns came dribbling in, Clinton’s margin grew narrower and narrower. The overwhelmingly African American city of Gary turned out overwhelmingly for the mixed-race Senator from Illinois, threatening to drive Clinton out of the race for good.
In the end, though, Clinton prevailed – barely. But not before I had the chance to do multiple live shots for our audience, explaining the political peculiarities of the Calumet Region for viewers from Baluchistan to Beijing.
And that, my friends, was as sweet as a platter of butter-fried Lake Michigan perch with a side order of three-bean salad.