Obama, Clinton Still Face a Muddled Path

At 11:30 Monday night Barack Obama had left behind the glitz and glitter of a blowout rally featuring Stevie Wonder and 21,000 cheering fans. He'd trudged to an auto parts factory scheduled to close down soon. There he posed for photos, signed autographs, asked for votes—and then glanced at the press corps tailing his every move. "You look like you need a shift change," he quipped. "Or maybe some red velvet cake."

Obama is working the working-class audiences in Indiana and North Carolina hard. But will there be cake on Tuesday? Will the trips to construction sites, breakfasts in union halls, question-and-answer sessions in lighting factories, and drive-bys at coffee shops and diners pay off with the kind of rally that can put an end to the bleeding and knock Hillary Clinton out of contention?

The indications heading into Tuesday's voting are not exceptionally encouraging for the Obama camp. Judging from the polls, and the sentiments of his closest advisers, Obama appears to have done little to change the post-Rev. Wright, post-Pennsylvania shift among downscale white Democrats who have aligned themselves with Senator Clinton. Obama's aides are bracing for a loss in Indiana, balanced by a win in the far bigger state of North Carolina. But the signs of anxiety and fatigue are everywhere. After the seismic shock of Wright's return to the headlines, and a slew of contradictory national soundings, insiders are wary of predicting much of anything with any certainty.

And that represents a lost opportunity. Tuesday is the last primary day that could fundamentally change the dynamic of the Democratic contest. North Carolina and Indiana together account for 187 pledged delegates, overshadowing Pennsylvania (which has 103 pledged delegates) and roughly equaling the next four states combined. There are only six contests left after Tuesday's vote.

Barring a dramatic turn of events, the battle will shift from the grinding state-by-state slog for primary votes to an inside fight for the hearts and minds of a few hundred undeclared superdelegates. Some of those souls are genuinely undecided; others have been holding out in the hope that one candidate would generate sufficient momentum down the home stretch and demonstrate his or her strength for the fall election. Still others dwell in the handful of states that have yet to vote. What all of them want to know is: who can beat the GOP's John McCain in November?

Barring a dramatic change in the math as a result of Tuesday's voting, Obama is expected to finish the primary season roughly 100 shy of the 2,025 delegates needed to secure the nomination. Clinton will be around 250 short of the goal line. That figure represents roughly the number of superdelegates who remain undeclared.

Obama has enjoyed an edge in the number of superdelegates who have trickled into his camp since Super Tuesday, on Feb. 5. But there have not been enough of those new arrivals to seal the deal. As a result the Democrats face a twilight zone—in which Obama cannot collect enough superdelegates to secure the nomination, and Clinton runs out of bodies to close the gap.

On May 31 some 30 party hacks on the Democratic National Committee's rules committee meet to try to sort things out. A subject sure to be discussed, yet again: whether to seat the delegates from Florida and Michigan, two states stripped of their nominating clout when they moved their primary dates up on the calendar in defiance of the national party's wishes. Clinton, who won both contests, has pushed to have those delegates seated, while Obama has objected, pointing out that he honored the party's wishes by skipping both states. Without some agreement over Michigan and Florida, the Democrats are left with the nightmare scenario of party bosses deciding the nomination behind closed doors—leaving the nominee tainted and a legacy of distrust among the supporters of the loser, whose support for the Democratic standard-bearer will be crucial to the party's chances of defeating McCain in the fall. Even at this late date there's no clear path to the cake.