Tri-State clean sweep boosts Obama

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The Independent US

Barack Obama achieved a three-state sweep last night in the latest round of the increasingly pugilistic contest with Hillary Clinton for the right to lead the Democratic Party into the 2008 presidential elections.

The Senator from Illinois made fresh headway in the scramble for delegates at the party's nominating convention in late August, registering convincing wins in a primary election in Louisiana as well as in Nebraska and Washington, which voiced their preferences with caucus conventions.

All three states had been widely expected to enter the Obama column. Hitherto, he has demonstrated an ample edge over Mrs Clinton in states that hold caucus votes because of the remarkable enthusiasm of his supporters. In Louisiana, meanwhile, he was assisted by the state's African-American population, which, although diminished since Hurricane Katrina, remains significant.

But the margins recorded by Mr Obama were impressive. He captured 68 per cent of support in Nebraska, compared with 32 percent for Clinton in a caucus with 24 delegates at stake. In Washington, he was ahead by almost exactly the same margin, 68 to 31. In Louisiana, the results were a slightly less lopsided, Mr Obama snaring 57 per cent versus 37 per cent for Mrs Clinton.

The suspense is gone from the Republican derby, but voters delivered a nasty sting to presumptive nominee John McCain, who lost overwhelmingly to the only rival remaining in the nomination race in Kansas. Huckabee took nearly 60 per cent of the caucus vote, winning all 36 delegates at stake. The preacher-turned-politician also won the Louisiana primary, but fell short of 50 per cent, the threshold necessary to pocket the 20 delegates that were available. Instead, they will be awarded at a state convention next weekend.

But Huckabee was still hopelessly behind McCain with his 719 delegates out of a total 1,191 needed to secure the Republican nomination. Huckabee had 234 delegates. McCain won the Washington state caucuses. None of the state's delegates will be awarded until next week.

Last night's results will give a hearty boost to Mr Obama whose confidence seems to have grown after achieving a photo-finish with Mrs Clinton in the avalanche of state confidence in last week's Super Tuesday. He faces a tougher fight in Maine caucus voting today, but is touted as the likely winner this Tuesday when voters in Washington DC, Virginia and Maryland go to the polls.

Turnout among Democrats in Washington was more than double that of four years ago. Far fewer voters showed up to the polls in Louisiana, where racial divisions were striking, with 9 in 10 blacks, according to exit polls, backing Mr Mr Obama. He campaigned here in New Orleans on Thursday.

Mrs Clinton hopes to stem any Obama surge in primaries set for two key states, Ohio and Texas, for 4 March. Indeed, last night will do little to alter the perception that the two of them are likely still locked in a battle if not to the death then to the party convention.

Democratic Party leaders are becoming increasingly concerned that their protracted struggle will end up damaging the chances of either of them winning the Presidential election in November.

Unless the deadlock can be ended, the final say in choosing the party nominee may rest not with voters but with a few hundred "super-delegates" – senior party officials and Democrats elected to Congress or state governorships, who now find themselves being feverishly wooed the camps of both candidates.

Rarely have conditions been so favourable for a Democrat to win the White House. The economy is sputtering, and the Iraq war is only slightly less unpopular than the Republican incumbent who started it. But this advantage could be eroded if the party cannot unite behind its candidate by early summer.

The spectre of an inconclusive battle came into focus after last week's "Super Tuesday" clash, which ended in a draw. Mr Obama won more states; Mrs Clinton won the biggest states. By yesterday, the Associated Press estimated he had won more delegates than she did on Tuesday – precisely two more.

Another sweep by Obama on Tuesday will be a powerful boost but, unless the margins are very wide, will not represent any kind of knock-out punch. Mrs Clinton is counting on winning Texas and Ohio next month. Indeed, an internal Obama campaign memo inadvertently attached to a press release last week showed Mr Obama's own aides are predicting that come the last of the state-by-state primaries on 5 June, he might be ahead of Mrs Clinton in delegates, but only by a hair.

This is the nightmare scenario now confronting the party. There will be options for resolving such a draw, but all are about as unappealing as the other, starting with off-loading the final decision onto the 796 "super-delegates". These are mostly elected members of Congress, Governors and assorted party grandees. For them to choose between the two would look like a mockery of the democratic process. "To the public that looks like a throwback to the old, corrupt system of smoke-filled rooms," noted Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

One solution less objectionable than any other would be a truce between the two runners and the formation of a two-for-one "dream-ticket". It's an idea that Democrat voters mention often. Howard Dean, the chairman of the Party, made no explicit mention of such a deal, but did say last week that some kind of armistice would have to be negotiated between them if they are still tied in the spring.

Mr Dean is the first to recognise the irony of his position. Voters have turned out in primary and caucus voting in unprecedented numbers. There is a real sense of thrill not seen in a generation. Yet the electoral talents of Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama have succeeded also in cleaving his party right in two.

Looming is another even trickier problem. Michigan and Florida leaned to Mrs Clinton in their primaries, but neither will be allowed to send delegates to the summer convention because they broke party rules by leap-frogging their voting dates earlier in the calendar. Mrs Clinton now wants them seated, because they could break the draw. Mr Obama does not. Only a court case may resolve this.

While intoxicating in its appeal, meanwhile, an Obama-Clinton dream ticket would be hard to put together – should it instead be a Clinton-Obama ticket? Who is Prez, who is Veep? If it is to be Prez Hillary, how will she function with not one but two powerful men at her shoulder, Bill and Barack?

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