(Washingtonpost.com) Democratic leaders resigned themselves yesterday to a prolonged and potentially damaging battle between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama for their party's presidential nomination, but said they will push for a quick conclusion to the warfare once the primaries end in early June.
Clinton's victory in Pennsylvania on Tuesday stilled talk that she should consider quitting the race before the end of the primaries because of Obama's significant advantage in pledged delegates. But party leaders were split about the potential consequences of six more weeks of tough campaigning.
"What happened yesterday was what a lot of us were afraid would happen," Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen said. "There is no clear resolution. She did a little better than expected, but they're still standing there, slugging it out. Everybody's getting bloody and there's no knockouts. It helps prolong that."
Party leaders expressed concern that, as Clinton and Obama continue to focus on each other, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumed Republican nominee, is getting a free ride as he reintroduces himself around the country and begins laying out his platform for the general election.
But Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said he is "less concerned than a lot of Democrats" about the consequences of the nominating contest, noting that the primaries are drawing hundreds of thousands of new voters to the party rolls and that in 60 days, that will be more important than the combat between Clinton and Obama.
Dean echoed the view that Clinton's 10-percentage-point victory in Pennsylvania, which matched her victory margin in Ohio last month, earned her the right to press ahead with her underdog candidacy. "I think she certainly has a lot to be proud of," he said. "I wouldn't think anybody would drop out at this point, nor have I ever suggested anyone should."
Rep. Brad Miller (N.C.), an uncommitted superdelegate, agreed. "I'm not going to tell her to drop out," he said. "I wouldn't tell someone that just won a major primary by 10 points to drop out."
But Dean also reiterated his call for uncommitted superdelegates to move quickly once the primaries are over to declare their allegiance and end the Clinton-Obama contest before it damages the party's chance of winning the White House in November. "We'd like to know who the nominee is by the end of June," he said.
Bredesen, who had proposed that superdelegates convene in June to express their preferences, said party leaders have an obligation to force some kind of action in June.
"The time is coming when the Democratic Party steps up and exercises leadership to resolve this issue," he said. But he added pointedly, "I just don't think hope can be the entire strategy."
Tuesday's results, while not unexpected, set off another intraparty debate over the state of the race. Strategist Tad Devine, who played top roles in the past two Democratic presidential campaigns, called Clinton's Pennsylvania victory "impressive" and added, "I never thought it was over, but now I think she has more of a chance than she did two weeks ago."
Rep. Artur Davis (Ala.), an Obama supporter, echoed the Obama campaign' analysis of the impact of Pennsylvania. "I don't think the race has fundamentally changed," he said. "He still has a notable lead in delegates, the popular vote, national polling and the money race."
The Clinton campaign disputed who leads in the popular vote, noting that if the unsanctioned primaries in Michigan and Florida were included, Clinton would have edged ahead in popular votes. But Obama loyalists accuse her of playing loose with the facts, noting that Obama had taken his name off the ballot in Michigan and that neither candidate ran a real campaign in Florida.
Obama supporters stopped short of calling on Clinton to quit the race, but warned against campaign tactics that leave the party weaker and made it clear that they think she has little chance of winning the nomination.
"That is such an intensely personal decision that it is something she needs to decide," Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano said when asked whether she would now urge the New York senator to get out. "I do hope that, as they keep campaigning, that everybody realizes that at the end it's not only for the nomination, it's for the presidency. Everything that is being said and done now is going to be fodder for the fall, and we need to keep our eye on the White House."
Asked whether Obama was being hurt by the continuation of the race, she replied, "I think he's not being helped."
But Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, another Obama supporter, said the negativity of the contest may strengthen the senator from Illinois if he is the party's nominee.
"It's probably good to have this negative stuff coming at him now, because he probably was going to get it in the fall," Doyle said. He added, "It would be better for him to move on and get focused on Senator McCain, but this process is probably helpful to him."
Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who also backs Obama, said Clinton's timetable "is up to her," but added that she hopes to see a nominee crowned sooner rather than later. "I do think that this [Obama's nomination] is inevitable, that the last best chance [for Clinton] to close the pledged delegate gap was in Pennsylvania and that wasn't done."
But Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a key Clinton supporter, argued that nothing is inevitable at this point, given that Obama cannot obtain a majority of delegates without the help of uncommitted superdelegates. "It's clear that Senator Clinton is the best standard-bearer for us in the fall, and superdelegates need to take a deep breath and think about that," he told reporters.
Don Fowler, a former DNC chairman and a Clinton supporter, dismissed suggestions that Democratic superdelegates are worried about the potential damage of a prolonged nomination battle. "I don't call 15 superdelegates every day and talk to them, but the ones I know are quite content to let things drift along," he said. "The people who are truly undecided, they're just waiting to get a signal."
Fowler, however, said Clinton needs a strong performance on May 6 to keep her hopes alive. "She has to win Indiana and has to at least come very close in North Carolina," he said.
Former congressman Harold E. Ford Jr. (Tenn.), who chairs the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, said he thinks that, after Pennsylvania, the onus will be on Obama to bounce back. "He's got to win Indiana now," said Ford, who has not endorsed a candidate. "He's got to quiet those who believe he has problems winning over blue-collar voters. I don't believe that is actually real . . . but in this business, perception late in the game is very important. So he's got to perform well in Indiana."
Obama said yesterday that he has gained ground among white, working-class voters in Pennsylvania since the March 4 Ohio primary. But exit polls dispute that. He lost white voters without college degrees by 44 points in Ohio and 40 points in Pennsylvania. He also lost ground with another important constituency, white Roman Catholics, who are a sizable bloc in many of the industrial states in the East and Midwest. He lost them by 31 points in Ohio and 44 points in Pennsylvania.
Obama picked up the support of two Democratic superdelegates yesterday, while Clinton gained one more. Overall, he leads the delegate race with 1,723 to her 1,592, according to the Associated Press. Clinton leads among superdelegates 259 to 235, a ratio that has been steadily shrinking over the past six weeks. (Click here for the CBS News state-by-state tally.)
© 2008 The Washington Post Company