Obama still faces Clinton complication

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The Independent US

She may have lost the nomination - but she holds her party's fate in her hands. The Democratic convention that opens here today will be the coronation of Barack Obama, choreographed to the last word and smallest gesture. But millions of hands could still wield a fatal dagger. They belong to the supporters of Hillary Clinton.

At the weekend, the last important political piece before this unmatched pageant fell into place, with Obama's choice of Joe Biden, the vastly experienced chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as his vice presidential running mate. At almost the same moment, an army of construction workers set about completing the last physical piece - the transformation of Invesco Field, normally home to the Denver Broncos football team, from mile-high sports arena into a colossal open-air theatre where the nominee presumptive will deliver his acceptance speech before 80,000 people on Thursday evening.

The selection of Biden has been broadly welcomed in party ranks, though perhaps not with overwhelming enthusiasm. If for a variety of reasons (most notably, of course, her husband), Hillary herself could not be enlisted for the 'dream ticket' that would unify the party, the consensus is that Biden was the best alternative available.

He may have been chosen for his seasoning in national security matters - the 'Vladimir Putin candidate,' it is joked, after the Russian onslaught against Georgia played into the strongest suit of Obama's Republican rival John McCain, making Americans wonder whether they were really prepared to make a 47-year-old rookie Senator their commander in chief.

But over the next couple of months, America will see little of Biden the Washington insider, smooth (and often solipsistic and maddeningly garrulous) foreign affairs expert. The Joe Biden on display will be the hardworking, nice-guy son of a Catholic family, raised in industrial Scranton, Pennsylvania, who commutes from his home state of Delaware to Washington - and by train, of all things. This Biden, the Obama camp fervently hopes, will help win over the white blue collar workers that spurned their man and flocked to Hillary in the primaries in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, vital swing states the party must win to reclaim the White House in November.

The Biden unveiled by Obama at their joint introductory rally in Springfield, Illinois, on Saturday was indisputably the second Biden, aimably ripping into his old Senate pal McCain as a Bush clone, who would offer only the prospect of four more years of what Biden called the most disastrous Presidency in modern times. Traditionally, the vice Presidential nominee is the attack dog on the ticket, allowing his partner to tread the higher ground. If Springfield was any guide, Biden is more than up for it.

The hope is that this combative, freewheeling Biden will be the perfect complement for the cool, cerebral and ultra-disciplined Obama. On the other hand, the gaffe prone Biden could prove a dangerous and distracting side-show. It's easy to imagine the reporters' calls to Obama HQ in Chicago, and the aghast replies - “Oh God, did he really say that?” But the Illinois Senator has evidently concluded the risk is worth taking.

Ideally, the convention that unfolds this week will be a nonstop four day party political broadcast, on prime time TV before an unusually receptive audience, more interested in this election than any in modern times. The stage is perfectly set. Yes, what with the Georgia crisis, an unpersuasive performance in a debate organized by Christian evangelicals and a resurgent John McCain, the candidate has had a rough August this far. Even so, an ABC News survey yesterday showed Obama going into the convention with a 49-45 per cent edge nationally among self-described likely voters.

It's a small lead, but a lead nonetheless, and one which is likely to be significantly larger by next weekend. Obama's handlers are busy playing down expectations, but they will be disappointed if convention does not produce a 'bounce' of at least 7 or 8 points. Alas, there is one large complication: the Clinton factor.

After the most closely contested primary season in modern times, many scars have yet to heal. The ABC poll found that one in three of Hillary's supporters are not yet ready to swing behind Obama. By the end their candidate was winning more primaries than she lost. Obama's high point, it could be argued, came in late February. Since then it was been mostly downhill, as he lost in bellwether primaries like Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. By one measure she even collected more votes than Obama, 18-plus million of them. Had Democrats used the Republicans' winner-take-all system in the primaries and eschewed superdelegates, she - not Obama - would be the nominee. Small wonder many of them still feel cheated.

The lady herself has been distinctly gracious in defeat, even though some complain she has been less enthusiastic for Obama than she might have been: in Florida last week she even referred to him as “my opponent.” But she has campaigned on his behalf, both in joint appearances and solo; on Saturday she warmly praised the choice of the “purposeful and dynamic” Biden - even though by all accounts, Obama did not hold a serious conversation about the vice-Presidency with the woman who almost defeated him. “It's easy to see that as disrespect, and some Hillary loyalists are going to resent it,” says James Carville, Democratic strategist, Clinton loyalist and a prime architect of her husband's White House victory in 1992.

Undoubtedly, Hillary's speech tomorrow will be a rousing call to unity. But the reminders of what might have been will be everywhere. Her name will be formally placed in nomination, and even though she will tell her supporters to swing behind her rival, virtually half the elected delegates in the Pepsi Center, where the convention is being held, were sent there on her behalf.

Probably, most of them will follow those instructions. If anything figures larger in the collective Democratic soul than memories of the epic Obama/Clinton struggle, it is the burning desire to win back the White House, in a year which could not be more favourable. But what could prevent it is a bruising convention.

Twice in recent times precisely that has happened, in 1976 when Ronald Reagan came close to unseating Gerald Ford at the Republican convention in Kansas City, and in 1980 when Edward Kennedy carried a doomed but unrelenting challenge to Jimmy Carter to the bitter end. Not by co-incidence, Ford and Carter, incumbent Presidents, both lost. An even if Hillary proves a good loser, there is no guarantee that her husband, visibly far more irked at Obama's win, will behave similarly. Bill Clinton speaks on Wednesday evening. No words this week will be more minutely parsed, by every political analyst in the land.

And so to the remarkable ad aired yesterday by the McCain campaign. It positively eggs on disgruntled Hillary supporters, especially women, to cast in their lot with the Republican. “Passed Over,” it is called, asking why she was not given the No. 2 spot. “She won millions of votes,” a woman's voice softly intones, “but isn't on his ticket. Why? For speaking the truth.” The ad then runs clips of the former First Lady, first complaining in one of the Democratic debates earlier this year how Obama rarely gives specifics of his plans, and then evoking the name of Tony Rezko, the indicted Chicago graft-peddler who was an Obama fundraiser and once even sold him real estate.

Surely, one would presume, Democrats will not be so easily fooled. But an NBC/ Wall Street last week found, stunningly, that of Hillary voters in the primaries, 27 per cent were undecided who to vote for in November, while 21 per cent claimed to have switched to McCain - that fierce pro-life advocate, self-confessed ignoramus on the economy, ardent supporter of every one of George W. Bush's wars and, if his own words are any guide, not averse to a few more. Could the most diehard Hillary believer go quite that far to spite Obama? Joe Biden's most important task will be to help make sure they do not, and prevent his running mate's week in the limelight from being merely a prelude to disaster.

Assuming the Clinton problem can be resolved, this has every prospect of being a convention for the ages.

Never before has an African American had a serious chance of reaching the Oval Office, and at a moment when the country's belief in itself has rarely been more fragile. Never has interest, not just in the US, but around the world, been as powerful. The Obama life story, compelling by American standards and by those of any other country scarcely believable, will be told as never before.

At the end there will be Obama's words to the 80,000 believers in Invesco Field. As a rule, convention speeches that linger in the memory do so for the wrong reasons. An exception was Obama's inspirational keynote address to John Kerry's convention in Boston four years ago, that turned him overnight into a national figure, though he had not even been elected to the Senate. On Thursday evening - a drenching Colorado thunderstorm of course permitting - he can do even better still.