WASHINGTON - For all their delight in soaring voter registration and strong poll numbers, some Democrats fear the contest between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton might have a nightmarish end, which could wreck a promising election year.
The chief worry is that Clinton may carry her recent winning streak into Pennsylvania, Indiana, North Carolina and other states, leaving her with unquestioned momentum but fewer pledged delegates than Obama. Party leaders then would face a wrenching choice: Steer the nomination to a fading Obama, even as signs suggested Clinton could be the stronger candidate in November; or go with the surging Clinton and risk infuriating Obama's supporters, especially blacks, the Democratic Party's most loyal base.
Some anxious Democrats want party elders to step in now to generate more "superdelegate" support for Obama, effectively choking off Clinton's hopes before she can bolster them further. But many say that is unlikely, and they pray the final 10 contests will make the ultimate choice fairly obvious, not excruciating.
Barring a complete meltdown by Obama, Clinton has almost no chance of surpassing his number of pledged delegates, even if she scores upset wins in states such as Oregon, which votes May 20. But such victories would encourage her to keep criticizing Obama — her only hope for the nomination — and thus heighten doubts about Obama's ability to defeat Republican Sen. John McCain in the fall.
That scenario troubles many Democrats, especially those who feel Obama's nomination is all but inevitable.
"This is going to give Republicans a chance to try to destroy everything we've been trying to work for for eight years," said Ken Foxworth, a Democratic National Committee member from Minnesota and superdelegate who backs Obama.
Superdelegates are party officials, including members of Congress, who can back any candidate they wish. With neither Obama nor Clinton able to secure the nomination with the pledged delegates they win in primaries and caucuses, the superdelegates ultimately will decide the outcome.
Many undeclared superdelegates express confidence that all will be well. Democratic voters will unite in the fall, they say, and the injuries that Obama and Clinton inflict on each other this spring will heal.
Privately, however, some party insiders worry that these superdelegates may be blithely marching toward a treacherous crossroad, where they will have to choose between a deeply wounded Obama and a soaring Clinton whose success was built on tearing down the party's front-runner in terms of delegates.
A senior Democratic Senate aide, who would speak only on background because most members of Congress bar their staff members from being quoted by name, called it a nightmare that's getting worse.
The Democrats' optimism of February has been replaced by fear, this aide said, referring to the widely held view last month that Obama was coasting to the nomination after winning 11 straight contests. Clinton halted the skid in Texas and Ohio on March 4 and is favored to win the Pennsylvania primary on April 22.
If the New York senator also tops Obama in Indiana and North Carolina on May 6, West Virginia a week later, and Kentucky and/or Oregon on May 20, her supporters will argue that the dynamic has sharply changed in ways party leaders cannot ignore. Obama is no longer the sure-footed campaigner who piled up wins and delegates in February, they will say, and the superdelegates' obligation to the party is to nominate the sprinting Clinton, even if it angers Obama backers.
Of course, Obama could practically extinguish Clinton's final hopes by winning one or more of those states. Many Democrats believe he will, suggesting Clinton's continued campaign is a hopeless, albeit potentially harmful, endeavor.
Obama's nomination is "a foregone conclusion," Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., told National Journal. Dodd endorsed Obama after trying for the nomination himself.
He's ahead of Clinton in delegates, popular votes, states won and fundraising. Obama seems nearly certain to finish the primary season far ahead of Clinton financially. At the end of February his campaign had $30 million on hand, while Clinton's had only $3 million more in cash than in debts.
Some Obama supporters question Clinton's motives: They suggest she is counting on a stunning gaffe or shocking revelation to cripple Obama and hand her the nomination. Others float a more sinister possibility, which has found its way into mainstream news accounts: Clinton hopes to damage Obama so severely that he loses to McCain this fall, clearing her path to challenge McCain in 2012, when he will be 75.
Clinton scoffs at such suggestions, and calls on voters to support whomever is the Democratic nominee in November.
Whatever her motives, many Democrats fear that Clinton's continued criticisms can only hurt the man they see as their all-but-certain nominee. They point to a recent Gallup poll, in which 28 percent of Clinton's Democratic supporters said they would vote for McCain if Obama is the party's nominee. Nineteen percent of Obama's supporters said they would vote for McCain if Clinton gets the nod.
Faced with such disturbing trends, some Democrats want party elders either to persuade Clinton to drop out, or to orchestrate enough superdelegate endorsements of Obama to make her defeat inevitable. But high-profile Democrats, including former president Jimmy Carter, former vice president Al Gore, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, have refrained from such moves so far.
"My job is to make sure the person who loses feels like they have been treated fairly so that their supporters will support the winner," Dean told The Associated Press.
Indeed, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi drew objections from Clinton backers when she approached the issue by saying she shared Obama's view that superdelegates should be guided by the vote for pledged delegates.
This week, one of Obama's prominent supporters, Sen. Patrick Leahy took the next step. The Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee said Clinton can't win enough delegates and should drop out and support Obama.
Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Southern Politics, Media, and Public Life at the University of North Carolina, said it's probably asking too much of Dean and others to step in. In an era of sharply contested primaries and largely meaningless nominating conventions, he said "we don't have any power brokers any more" who could somehow negotiate a resolution.
Pat Waak, chairwoman of the Colorado Democratic Party, said the worriers should relax.
"I actually think it's good for the party to get through this process," she said. "It gives everybody a chance to be part of it," she said, noting that Democratic voter registration is soaring in many states.
In Pennsylvania, Democrats have registered a staggering 161,000 new voters since last fall, pushing their numbers over 4 million for the first time. In Oregon, nearly 10,000 voters have refiled as Democrats in the last seven weeks.
Waak added, however: "The concern I have is the kind of level of attack that has come up" between Obama and Clinton. "I don't think that is good for the party."
Superdelegates will have to choose this summer, Waak said, and it will be easy if Obama can significantly increase his lead in delegates, popular votes and states won. On the other hand, she said, "the narrower the margin and the less conclusive it is, the harder it becomes."