Barack Obama not only nearly clinched the Democratic nomination Tuesday night, he also answered a big question about the fall campaign. The glass jaw that Hillary Clinton and John McCain thought they saw turned out to be an illusion. In the jingle of the old Timex watch ads, he took a licking and kept on ticking.
Oh, what a difference a week makes. April 28 was only last week, but it feels like six months ago. That was the day Obama got hit by a one-two punch. First, his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, dominated the airwaves with his offensive rant. The same day brought news that Hillary had decided to join McCain in calling for a summer gas tax holiday, sure to be popular with voters angry about high costs at the pump.
For the first time since February, Clinton seemed to have a real shot at the nomination. Still reeling from his big loss in Pennsylvania, Obama was battered by charges that he was elitist and disconnected from a big chunk of the Democratic Party. From bad bowling to "bitter" to arugula eater to disciple of an America-hater, he seemed to be floundering.
May 6 looked ominous. With African-Americans making up only 9 percent of Indiana Democratic voters, Obama was in deep trouble there, behind in the polls and slipping. North Carolina was also headed in the wrong direction, with some surveys showing only a five-point Obama lead. In most earlier primaries, including those he won, Obama slipped further on the last weekend. Even his closest aides thought Indiana and North Carolina would be no different.
Last week not a soul in politics would have predicted that Obama would win North Carolina by 14 points and virtually tie in Indiana. But through a combination of luck and smarts, the campaign ended on the theme that Obama ran on: old politics vs. new politics.
By conventional standards Clinton was in the groove, focusing on bread-and-butter issues and pummeling Obama for being out of touch with angry motorists. Many pundits reported that "the working girl" was "on fire" and on the move.
Traveling around North Carolina and Indiana, I wasn't sure. But two things struck me as encouraging for Obama. First, I went to a big Clinton event in Indianapolis on Saturday night and noticed that there were no more than a handful of African-Americans in a crowd of several thousand. For all the talk about white blue-collar workers (a group that gave only 41 percent of its votes to Bill Clinton in 1992), the most important demographic this year was unquestionably black women, who were expected when the campaign began to split 50-50—but have been going 90-10 for Obama. That boded well in North Carolina. A woman candidate cannot win the Democratic nomination without at least some African-American women. Period.
The second encouraging sign for Obama was the candidate himself. His press conference denouncing Wright didn't end the issue for good, but it did put enough distance between Obama and Wright to help neutralize the damage. More important, Obama's decision to push back on the gas tax actually worked. Refusing to pander reminded his base among college-educated voters of the reasons they liked him in the first place.
It also helped Obama recover his rhythm. After watching him sink some baskets on Sunday, I had a few words with him. "I feel really good about that [the gas tax position]," he said. "We had veered into the conventional, and now we're back." This was a huge gamble and it paid off.
In the end Obama showed the kind of resilience that was supposed to apply only to the Clintons. Between May and November Obama will have other low moments. But now he has some experience surviving them.