Campaign 2008: A Game of Survivor

Hillary Clinton's day at the polls was not unlike her bumpy plane ride from Texas to Ohio earlier Tuesday: everyone on board had white knuckles, but in the end she survived. The New York senator snapped Barack Obama's 12-state winning streak, decisively taking the key state of Ohio—a likely must-win state for Democrats in the fall—by a significant margin, and eking out a narrow win in Texas. She also handily won Rhode Island. Those three wins made it probable the Democratic battle would go on for some time to come despite Obama's seemingly insurmountable lead in pledged delegates and Clinton's loss in Vermont on Tuesday.

Clinton, in her victory speech in Columbus after a 54 percent to 44 percent triumph, made it clear she wasn't going anywhere and twice referred to Ohio's historical status as a state that successful presidential candidates must win. "You know how the saying goes: 'As Ohio goes, so goes the nation,'" she told her supporters. "Well, this nation's coming back and so is this campaign. … For everyone here in America and in Ohio who's ever been counted out but refused to be knocked down … this one's for you." The Clinton campaign will now argue that her victory in major states that would undoubtedly be the cornerstone of a Democratic victory in the fall—including New York, California and New Jersey, along with Ohio and Texas—has shifted momentum in her direction.

The mixed results, however, did not bode well for the Democrats in the general election, especially after John McCain became the presumptive Republican nominee Tuesday night with the departure of his last GOP rival, Mike Huckabee, from the race. McCain, who was scheduled to meet with George W. Bush in the Rose Garden on Wednesday, quickly took advantage of the Democratic disarray, saying Americans no longer had patience for an "uncivil brawl over the spoils of power." McCain declared: "The contest begins tonight."

For McCain it certainly will. And he knows that the fierce rivalry between Obama and Clinton-which is likely to continue through the Pennsylvania primary on April 22 and could potentially last until the final primary in Puerto Rico in June—opens the way for him to define the terms of the fall campaign. That's what happened to John Kerry in 2004. In that election Kerry actually secured the Democratic nomination in March, but stayed silent while the Republican machine branded him a flip-flopper—waiting for what one of his aides called the "regular campaign season." By the time of that summer's Democratic convention, Kerry had been painted into a corner from which he never emerged.

The problem for Obama and Clinton: by ratcheting up their attacks on each other, they risk weakening the eventual nominee in the general election against McCain. They are certainly supplying the Republicans with a priceless amount of free advertising. Clinton's "red phone" ads raising questions about Obama's preparedness to be commander-in-chief, and Obama's counterattack commercials challenging Clinton's judgment, are likely to be re-aired by GOP politicos into the fall if she somehow manages to emerge as the nominee. Indeed, one reason for Clinton's success on Tuesday appeared to be her campaign's decision to attack Obama's integrity and honesty—raising questions about his relationship with a Chicago real estate magnate charged with extortion and his reported waffling over the NAFTA trade pact-as well as his readiness; exit polls showed that late deciders broke decisively for the New York senator.

McCain, in a somewhat tepid victory speech, continued to emphasize his credentials as the only candidate with the experience necessary to deal with threats abroad, saying that "America is at war in two countries and involved in a long and difficult fight with violent extremists who despise us, our values and modernity itself." McCain also sought to neutralize Obama's efforts to tout his early opposition to the unpopular Iraq war. All the candidates, the presumptive GOP nominee said, should avoid "relitigating the decisions of the past." Americans, McCain said, "know the next president doesn't get to remake the decisions. We're in Iraq. The next president must explain how he or she intends to bring that war to the swiftest possible conclusion" without destabilizing the Middle East and undermining U.S. security. He also attacked both Democrats for what he characterized as protectionist pandering.

Still, McCain's chief vulnerability will be exposed anew when he stands side by side with President Bush on Wednesday. This is the perception, which Obama has sought to flesh out, that McCain's presidency would represent in effect a third term for the unpopular Bush. McCain, Obama said in another rousing speech to his followers in San Antonio, Texas, "has seen where George Bush has taken our country and he promises to keep us on the very same course."

Despite her clutch victories, Clinton did not rack up the kind of margin in Texas she needed to seriously cut into Obama's lead among pledged delegates following his 11 straight victories prior to the March 4 vote. Indeed, Democratic counting rules, which apportion delegates to each candidate based on the margin of the vote rather than granting candidates a winner-take-all victory (the GOP method), made it likely that Obama and Clinton would gain close to the same number of delegates from Tuesday's four contests. But Clinton supporters argued that a shift of voter sentiment her way, and new doubts about Obama's credentials, could tilt the party's 300 or so undecided superdelegates into her column. Obama is well-positioned to prevail in the next two contests (Wyoming and Mississippi). The next big test: the Pennsylvania primary.