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Defining Success on Super Tuesday

By Dan Balz
How many critical moments can one election have? Iowa seemingly broke the back of the Hillary Clinton machine. New Hampshire crushed Barack Obama's hopes of gliding to the nomination. South Carolina delivered an emphatic rejection to the politics of anti-hope. Now comes Super Tuesday and another potential turning point in both races for president.

On the Democratic side, everything points to an inconclusive outcome. The complex formulas for awarding delegates, say the experts, virtually guarantee that neither can gain a decisive edge after Tuesday's voting in 22 states. Each candidate sees potential for victories in all regions. Each will pick off a fair number of delegates in the other's home state. Each is preparing for upcoming contests and anticipating a race that could go as far as Pennsylvania's April 22 primary.

But that does not mean there will not be a "winner" after Tuesday's voting. One of the two campaigns will wake up Wednesday with a fresh sense of possibility, the other with a sense of opportunity lost. Even with the narrowest of delegate margins as an outcome, Tuesday will change the Democratic race again.

There is an understandable obsession with the delegate count. In a race between two candidates as evenly matched as Clinton and Obama, the ultimate test is who can accumulate the 2,025 delegates needed to win the nomination in Denver next August. On a day when 52 percent of the pledged delegates (there are roughly 800 superdelegates not included in that percentage) will be awarded, the margin between the two candidates will be the focus of enormous attention.

There are several things to remember about the delegate battle. First, the rules of the Democratic Party are designed to keep the count close in a competitive race. Republicans will award delegates on a winner-take-all basis in many states, or give the winner of a congressional district in a state like California all the delegates from that CD. Not so for the Democrats.

The California Democratic Party issued a helpful, if mind-boggling, explanation of how delegates will be awarded. Twenty-six of the state's 53 congressional districts will award four delegates. To do better than a two-two split, the "winning" candidate will need more than 62.5 percent of the vote in that district.

The thresholds for gaining a significant advantage are similarly high in districts with six delegates or those rare districts with eight delegates. That's why both campaigns say neither candidate is likely to emerge from Tuesday's voting with a huge lead in delegates.

That has implications for the race going forward because catching up becomes more and more difficult. If the trailing candidate comes out of Tuesday behind by 100 delegates, making up the difference is possible. But it gets harder and harder if the deficit is 150 or 200. The trailing candidate would have to win consistently at big margins to make up the gap.

All that assumes trench warfare is the model through which to judge the Democratic race, and many Democratic strategists see Clinton better situated to prevail in a war of attrition. The alternative model is momentum, one built on a succession of victories in state after state -- even somewhat narrow victories -- that create critical mass in the minds of Democratic voters, Democratic officials, Democratic superdelegates and the media.

The prospect of a war of attrition and possibly a brokered convention in which superdelegates hold the balance of power intrigues everyone. Clinton now has the edge in superdelegates, but that advantage likely will disappear if Obama starts winning consistently. Most superdelegates blow with the wind.

What will give one candidate or the other momentum after Tuesday's voting? A delegate lead of more than 200 -- not counting superdelegates -- would put someone in a very strong position. Winning 14 or 15 of the 22 states would look impressive, even if the delegate difference is fewer than 100.

An Obama victory in California alone likely would have a powerful psychological impact on the race, given Clinton's big lead there only a few weeks ago. There is a clear sense in California that Obama has been gaining ground. Whether it is enough to overtake Clinton is the question.

Tuesday's polling offers no clear guide to California, with one poll showing Obama with a handsome lead and another showing Clinton still ahead. The fact that there are a substantial number of absentee votes already in the bank further distorts predictions -- and probably helps Clinton. That's why an Obama victory there has the potential to change the race dramatically.

The Clinton campaign wants to survive until the March 4 primaries in Ohio and Texas. Obama hopes to create a wave of momentum by winning most of the states that hold contests later in February. By Wednesday, it will be clearer who is better positioned to play the race out on favorable terms.

The Republican race seems more predictable, but it has gone through enough surprises that another twist would no longer be a surprise. John McCain has his eyes fixed on effectively wrapping up the nomination with Tuesday's results, and he looks strong in many states.

But Mitt Romney is surging in California. On this question, the polling is more consistent. One pollster said Tuesday morning that, based on what he has seen in the past few days, he would not be at all surprised by a Romney victory in the nation's biggest state.

If that were to occur, there is no way Romney will quit the race any time soon. A California win by Romney would represent a revolt among conservatives against McCain and give the former Massachusetts governor, given up for dead already this year, new life.

The biggest primary day in the history of presidential politics has now begun, and it will change the way people think about these races.

By Post Editor  |  February 5, 2008; 1:30 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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