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Politics

Coast-to-coast voting offers clearer picture

Super Tuesday is big deal for Democrats and GOP.

By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
Published February 5, 2008


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Clinton leads on paper but can't pull away from her rival.

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Obama can win big without winning states outright.

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McCain looks strongest in the states that count the most.

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Romney faces an uphill climb and split conservatives.

After today's primary elections, you may not know who has enough delegates to win the nomination, but you'll have a pretty good idea whom voters want atop the Democratic ticket in November.

This is as close to a national primary day as we've seen in modern history. Nearly 80-million registered voters representing every region of America can weigh in today on this remarkable, roller-coaster presidential campaign.

Polls suggest Arizona Sen. John McCain is poised to all but secure the Republican nomination, thanks to a big victory in Florida last week.

The Democratic race is wide open: A historic choice is to be made between the first African-American nominee and the first female nominee; between a fresh-faced Washington newcomer and a savvy old hand at Washington politics.

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York are shattering fundraising records, each having raised more than $100-million and each having spent at least $77-million.

"What an amazing year! The process - up to this point - has worked in winnowing the field and presenting a clear choice," said veteran Democratic consultant Donna Brazile, who is neutral in the race.

Up to this point, though, the winnowing has mainly occurred in isolated pockets of America - a few hundred thousand voters in places like Iowa and New Hampshire. Those contests all led to today, "Tsunami Tuesday," when tens of millions of voters in states as diverse as New York, Missouri, Arizona and Alabama have a voice.

The first polls close tonight at 7 in Georgia, and the final polls close at 11 EST in California.

The Democrat who gets the most votes today will be known, but that Democrat may not end up with the nomination because of the party's complicated delegation selection process.

Unlike many of the Republican contests, which give all of a state's delegates to whoever wins a majority of that state's votes, Democrats have an arcane, proportional system for awarding delegates that varies from state to state.

Clinton could win most of the 22 states voting on the Democratic nomination, for instance, but Obama could still be only narrowly behind her in delegates. Or vice versa.

It takes 2,025 delegates to win the Democratic nomination, and 1,681 are at stake today. Until now, 575 have been chosen. For Republicans, it takes 1,191 delegates to win the nomination, and 1,023 delegates are at stake today. Republicans have chosen 216.

Democrats are girding for an extended nomination fight that by some accounts could last well past March. There's even an unlikely but plausible scenario where Florida could be at the center of another electoral mess: a brokered national party convention in which Florida Democrats have zero voice.

"When you've got two strong candidates, the system here has been set up to have a longer process," said senior Clinton strategist Mark Penn, ignoring the reality that his candidate had long ago been expected to have the money and celebrity to roll into Super Tuesday and clinch the nomination.

Instead, Super Tuesday arrives with no clear front-runner on the Democratic side and no clear way to measure who wins. Especially with Obama having raised a stunning $32-million in January, there's no reason to expect the Democratic nomination to be wrapped up today. Penn suggested Monday that the nomination process could stretch until April 22, when Pennsylvania votes.

The longer the Democrats slug it out, the better for Republicans, suggested Tampa developer Al Austin, a top Republican fundraiser who intends to help McCain now that Rudy Giuliani has dropped out of the race.

"The sooner you can wrap this up with minimal damage, the better off you are," said Austin, who hopes the GOP race effectively ends today. "The more the candidates fight one another and have to prove one candidate is better than the other, the more ammunition they give the other side."

A protracted, bitter primary could fracture the Democratic base, delay organization and eat up millions of dollars. But Democrats say that as long as the contest remains relatively civil, an extended nomination contest would keep the spotlight on the Democratic agenda.

"If it's going to be neck and neck throughout the rest of the process, it's going to create an excitement over which one eventually wins the nomination," said Democratic pollster Tom Eldon. "An extended fight isn't necessarily a bad thing, as long as the fight is productive, and you're fighting with appropriate behavior."

Add in yet another uncertainty: what to do about Florida's 210 and Michigan's 156 Democratic delegates. The national party stripped away those delegates from both states as punishment for bucking the rules and scheduling early primaries in an effort to have more influence.

Jon Ausman, a Democratic National Committee member from Tallahassee, calculates that if Florida had delegates to award, last week Clinton would have won 105, compared to 67 for Obama and 13 for John Edwards. While Florida Democrats have long expected that those delegates would be reinstated once a likely nominee emerged, it's no sure thing that a nominee will emerge before the convention.

Two prominent civil rights figures, former U.S. Civil Rights Commission chairwoman Mary Frances Berry and former Justice Department official Roger Wilkins, are calling on the DNC to straighten out the matter.

"We are suggesting that the decision be made before the convention in an effort to avoid a floor fight," they wrote in a letter released Monday. "Public floor fights have served the party badly in the past. They left deep-seated ill will and preceded Democratic Party defeats in 1968 and 1972, for example. Resolution of this issue is a matter of fairness, justice and practicality."

Times staff writer Wes Allison contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or 727 893-8241.

[Last modified February 4, 2008, 23:42:44]


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