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U.S.: Democratic Presidential Campaign Winding Down, But To What End?

U.S. Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama at a debate in February (file photo) (epa) As the U.S. primary election campaign comes to a close, it is nearly a mathematical impossibility for Senator Hillary Clinton of New York to win enough delegates to be chosen as the Democratic Party's nominee for president. Nevertheless, Clinton refuses to concede. Meanwhile, her opponent, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, has begun campaigning as if he already has defeated Clinton, while being careful not to declare himself the winner. Is the contest truly in its endgame, or will it remain undecided until the Democratic Party's convention in August?

RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully discussed the state of the Democratic race with Robert J. Spitzer, a professor of political science at the State University of New York at Cortland and the author of four books on the U.S. presidency.

RFE/RL: Clinton just won a lopsided victory in the eastern state of West Virginia and has promised her supporters she won't drop out of the nomination race until the very end. Does she really have a chance to win the nomination, or is the contest all but over?

Robert Spitzer: I think the nomination process is in an endgame. The numbers make it pretty clear that Barack Obama will be the Democratic Party's nominee simply because he has a lead -- a consistent lead -- in pledged delegates who will be attending the Democratic Convention at the end of this summer, which will actually pick the nominee. He is also in the somewhat delicate position of not wanting to be entirely dismissive of Hillary Clinton because she's been in the race for so long and she has a deep base of support in the party. And I think it would be seen as disrespectful and dismissive if he simply said, 'Well, the nomination is mine and Hillary should drop out,' or simply ignore her altogether. So I think the path that he has chosen in recent weeks has been to focus more of his attentions on the Republican nominee, or who will be the Republican nominee, John McCain.

Hard-Hitting Campaign

RFE/RL: Why is it so important that Obama avoid declaring what most observers say is a de facto victory over Clinton?

Spitzer: The problem for Obama is if he seems to disregard Hillary Clinton's continued presence or behaves in a dismissive way toward her, it could alienate a large corps of Democratic voters who have strongly supported Hillary Clinton for many months and whose support he will need in the general election in the fall. The other element to that is that Hillary Clinton has run a very good campaign, a very hard-hitting campaign. She did, after all, win the most recent primary contest in West Virginia, although that will not change the final outcome. And so she is entitled to her due as a power within the Democratic Party, and he will need her support, and certainly he will not want her opposition. And more important, he will need the support of people who supported Hillary Clinton. Showing a modicum of respect and deference, I think, does him no harm and does him much good.

Robert J. Spitzer (courtesy photo)

RFE/RL: What are the essential differences between the two candidates' supporters? All, or virtually all, are Democrats. Is the party really so divided?

Spitzer: In ideological terms, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are pretty similar. Clinton has taken a somewhat harder line on foreign policy issues than Obama, but ideologically and on issue positions they're very close. So analysts and voters and others have been looking for what differences there are, and that has led to a very intensive focus on who their different constituencies are.

Hillary Clinton has done very well among lower-income workers. Obama has done better among younger voters and among upper-income voters. Hillary Clinton has done better among white voters. Obama, of course, has done better among African-American voters. And senior citizens and females also have voted more strongly for Clinton. So their demographic constituencies are somewhat divergent, but of course they are all Democrats, by and large. So whoever the nominee is, and obviously it looks like Obama, he will need to get support from those constituencies.

Choice Of Vice President

RFE/RL: How important is the choice of a vice-presidential running mate in broadening the appeal of a candidate who's won his party's nomination? Specifically, if Obama is the Democratic nominee, what kind of running mate should he look for?

Spitzer: There are a lot of different ways that Obama could go in choosing a vice president. The traditional wisdom is that you want to choose a vice president who you have some compatibility with but who also brings something to the ticket -- perhaps someone who is from a different region of the country or has a base of support in a different constituency.

So Obama, who is a senator from Illinois, may be looking for a running mate from the southeast, for example, or the southwest. Let's say somebody like Governor Bill Richardson from New Mexico. I'm not saying he would pick him, per se, but he would be an example of somebody from a different region of the country. New Mexico is a very competitive and close state. The electoral votes of New Mexico could be very important in choosing the next president. And Richardson is also of Latino, or Hispanic, origin, and that is an ethnic group that Obama would like to improve his support among. So that would be an example of a kind of a running mate that might be helpful to him.

RFE/RL: Clinton and Obama have campaigned vigorously against each other over the past few months. Has this hurt the party's chances in the general election, as some fear? Or has it made both Democrats candidates stronger?

Spitzer: There's a long debate about whether a very intense primary hurts or helps the party and the initial reaction has been from many -- especially many Democratic supporters -- that the Democratic primary contest is harmful because they're expending resources, they're exchanging blows. The Republicans presumably would be the beneficiaries of that.

But by the same token, I think if you look at the nature of the contest between Clinton and Obama, I don't really think it's been harmful to either candidate. I do think that both candidates have been strengthened and improved. Obama has been, if you will, toughened up to a great degree, and his people have had to respond to various criticisms and allegations and charges, and they've done so very effectively. That's one reason Obama is the leading candidate right now. [Clinton and Obama] have expended great resources in the process; the primary process has gone on very long in comparison to the primaries of recent presidential election cycles.

But I think that, assuming that the contest is resolved by or before the convention this August, I think it probably helps the Democrats overall. If, however, the party is too exhausted or too splintered, that's a bad thing. But if the party can come together and if it's invigorated and ready for the challenge of the fall campaign, then I think they're in a better position.

Ammunition For McCain?

RFE/RL: What about Clinton's criticisms of Obama? If Obama is the eventual nominee, won't they simply provide McCain with ammunition, as it were, to use in the general election campaign?

Spitzer: It's certainly true that when Hillary Clinton levels charges against Obama, those are charges that could also be picked up and used by John McCain in the fall. However, having been exposed to the charges at this point, it has two beneficial effects: One is that Obama now is aware of these charges and has responded to them. And secondly, it's already been vetted, it's already out there, and so to raise it again in the fall campaign will seem like old news. And by going through possible negatives early on here in the spring, it means that their potential impact in the fall race is reduced and perhaps even eliminated. So it is of some benefit for the Republicans, but it may not be enough to help them keep control of the White House.

RFE/RL: Some supporters of each Democratic candidate have expressed a level of animosity to the other. If Obama succeeds at winning the nomination, wouldn't it be best if he chose Clinton as his vice-presidential running mate to ensure the support of her backers? Or would her husband, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, complicate such an idea?

Spitzer: I don't think there will be a serious offer of the vice presidency to Hillary Clinton simply because she is too much of an independent voice, she's too strong a personality, and a presidential candidate generally wants a vice-presidential candidate who's not going to outshine them politically or who's not going to stray from the agenda. And you do have Bill Clinton kind of floating out there, but I don't think that would be a negative for Obama per se.

The bigger question would be the presence of Hillary Clinton on the ticket and whether she would be content with being vice president, whether Hillary Clinton would be an Obama person. And she simply has been campaigning against him for so long that I think it would not be such a great matchup, even though it could be helpful in uniting the Democratic Party.