Obama hunts for knock-out as fight turns ugly

It looked like yet another jubilant Barack Obama rally. The cavernous Indiana University sports hall in Bloomington jammed with thousands of supporters who stood in their seats and cheered deafeningly loudly.

Ever since Obama launched his bid to become America’s first ever black President 15 months ago, hundreds of cities and towns have seen the same huge rallies. But Obama’s campaign is now very different.

His stump speech is less about inspiring language and lofty rhetoric and more about punchy attacks on Hillary Clinton and the Republican nominee, John McCain.
His sleeves are rolled up and his shirt is rumpled. It is a look that is meant to convey a politician who means business.

For the fact is that Obama’s campaign has changed fundamentally. Following the incendiary sermons of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, Obama has been caught up in a divisive race-tinged debate. He has been attacked as elitist and out of touch and a friend to dangerous radicals. His support among white Democrats—once seen as the key to his “post-racial” appeal—has collapsed. Moreover, the long fight with Clinton has turned into vicious political trench warfare that seems never to end. The Democratic Party, far from uniting, is falling into a nasty civil war.

Now, for Obama, there is one last chance to try to knock Clinton out. This Tuesday sees primaries in North Carolina and Indiana. Obama is expected to take North Carolina and if he can pick off Indiana—and its precious white working-class vote—then it could finally land Clinton with a mortal blow. The superdelegates—the party bosses who will now decide this contest—may finally break for Obama in the wake of such a win. “If Obama wins Indiana and North Carolina, it has got to be seen as all over,” said pollster John Zogby, head of the polling firm Zogby International.

But Obama has blown such chances before. In New Hampshire, on Super Tuesday, in Ohio and Texas and most recently in Pennsylvania, Clinton has launched brilliant comebacks. She could easily do it again in Indiana. She might even take North Carolina. If she wins there, the doubts over Obama will grow and grow. The superdelegates will face a terrible dilemma. And the August party convention in Denver will beckon as the arena for a political fight the like of which has not been seen in decades.

Blake Watson is an Obama dream come true. He is white and works in construction in a small town in Indiana. He is, in short, the sort of person who has been deserting Obama and going for Clinton in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania. But Watson was impressed by Obama’s Bloomington speech.

“It was wonderful,” he said. “I haven’t finally made up my mind, but I think I am almost there for Obama.” Watson has little interest in the Wright controversy, believing it is a media distraction. “He has dealt with that. The way he spoke about it this week was very tactful,” he said.

Obama needs a lot more people to share Watson’s opinion. The fact is that Wright has been a political disaster for Obama’s campaign. Wright’s decision to break his long media silence last week could not have come at a worse time for Obama. His speech at the National Press Club in Washington created a tidal wave of negative publicity for a campaign already struggling to explain why it had suffered a 10-point loss in Pennsylvania.

That defeat was due mainly to working-class white people turning to Clinton. The sight of Obama’s pastor accusing the US government of having a role in creating the Aids virus will only have spurred that flight. Wright’s outbursts caused Obama finally to break his links with the Chicago preacher.

Though politically necessary, that can only have been a personal blow for Obama. Wright has been Obama’s pastor for many years. He officiated at Obama’s wedding. He baptised his children. Obama took the title of his first book from a Wright sermon. On the day Obama launched his presidential bid, the two men prayed together. Now Wright—upset by the way Obama has distanced himself from him in public—has delivered the heaviest blow to Obama’s campaign, almost derailing it. It is an almost Shakespearean level of tragedy and psychodrama.

The Wright controversy and the tough six-week battle in Pennsylvania have left Obama’s campaign much changed. The media love affair with Obama, so criticised by Clinton supporters, is firmly over. Two months ago Obama was hailed as unifying and inspiring, chided only for being heavy on rhetoric and light on policy. Now he is portrayed as racially divisive and battling charges of being out of touch. Some commentators think that is just part of the process of a tough political fight. “Some kind of bloom always comes off the rose. It is the rule of political gravity. The higher up you are, the harder the fall,” said Larry Haas, a former Clinton White House aide. That may be true. But it is unlikely to make Obama’s campaign much happier about the experience.

Clinton, on the other hand, is clearly on a high. At a rally in a high-school gymnasium in the city of Terre Haute, the scoreboards were all set to the number 44: reflecting the belief Clinton will be America’s 44th President. Certainly Clinton believed it. The stage was set up in the middle of the crowd and she prowled around it, delivering a speech high on energy and enthusiasm.

She wooed and wowed the crowd with a folksy monologue about high gas prices, the economy and the importance of God and Midwestern values. “It’s been a wonderful campaign,” she beamed, pointing out that she, Bill and Chelsea have together made 80 stops in the state. She also struck a populist note that has served her well recently. “My campaign is about jobs, jobs and jobs,” she said in a voice that was hoarse but tireless.

She was backed by an enthusiastic crowd: older, whiter and less numerous than those that flock to Obama. But one that certainly looked similar to the ones who delivered wins in Ohio and Pennsylvania. “She is the best candidate to put a Democrat in the White House so I can stop waking up every day and feeling embarrassed about Bush. Right now, it looks like Indiana is going to go for Hillary,” said Janice Bonner, a local accountant and campaign volunteer.

It’s not just in public that Clinton’s campaign has become supercharged. Privately, in the depths of January and February, her aides seemed gloomy. Now that mood is gone. They believe they have a genuine case to make to the vital superdelegates about Clinton being the more electable candidate against McCain. They point to her wins in big states like California and New York, which are the Democratic heartland.

Most of all, after almost four months in the wilderness, they now believe they have momentum behind them. Recent polls show her ticking upward at all levels, even in the presumed safe Obama territory of North Carolina. In the key November battleground states of Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio—all of which she won—her supporters say she is the best candidate to beat McCain. Recent polls strengthened that line. A survey by the Quinnipiac polling body in all three states showed Clinton stronger than Obama when fighting a Republican opponent. And it was working-class white voters giving her that boost.

“There is no indication that Obama’s problems with white working-class Democrats ... have gone away,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of Quinnipiac University’s Polling Institute. Yet the actual facts on the ground remain formidably challenging to Clinton. Barring electoral collapse, Obama will still win both the highest number of pledged delegates and the popular vote. That leaves only the super-delegates and, despite the turnaround in Clinton’s fortune, she is starting to lose the super-delegate battle too. With fewer than 300 yet to make their choice, Obama is winning more per week than she.

Few, it seems, are willing to go against the will of the party membership, thus alienating black and young voters. Indeed, Indiana was last week rocked by the defection of Joe Andrew, a Clinton-era official who had backed Clinton but suddenly announced he was jumping ship to Obama. At an emotional press conference in Indianapolis, he slammed his previous choice. “I am proud to try to divorce myself from that old political theatre,” he said, admitting it had been a “tough” personal decision.

Many observers believe that there are many more Andrews waiting in the wings, especially in Congress. Though scores of elected officials are still keeping quiet about their choice, most have already privately conveyed their feelings to both campaigns. Many party insiders believe Obama is now heavily favoured to win the super-delegate contest. They just need an opportunity—such as a win in Indiana—to come down on his side.

It is Clinton’s job to deny Obama that chance. If the mood in Terre Haute was anything to go by, then she may achieve just that. The crowd cheered, stamped their feet and gave her standing ovations. Even if she does not win Indiana, she still may fight on, resurrecting the politics of the pre-1970s era when brokered conventions were a standard way of selecting candidates. Legal disputes over the primaries in both Florida and Michigan—which Clinton claims as wins—also give her a legal method of prolonging the contest to Denver, no matter what the super-delegates decide. There is no doubt Clinton still believes she can win. “No one can knock her out. She will go only if she decides to go ... I believe this is going to Denver,” said Haas.

A disputed Denver convention will make amazing political theatre for TV audiences worldwide. But it may have a cost. There was one moment in Obama’s Bloomington speech when the curtain of Democratic unity fell down. It came from the crowd. Obama had praised his rival, saying that Clinton had run a strong campaign. But the mere mention of her name sparked a chorus of boos from the thousands-strong crowd.

That could be a huge problem for Democrats. This truly is a different race now. Obama began by preaching a political gospel of bringing together Red and Blue America and that message propelled him into his lead. Now, as the contest still rages, far from uniting the country, Democrats have instead split their own party.

The long fight has also changed Obama’s public image drastically. In newspaper headlines, TV shows and blogs, Obama is fighting off a pervasive image of an elitist who does not understand Middle America. That is a familiar problem for a long list of failed Democratic candidates. “Democrats lose elections with this kind of atmospheric stuff,” said Haas. Some nervous Democrats—and jubilant Republicans—see the ghosts of Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry already gathering over Obama’s campaign. - guardian.co.uk Â

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