Is Time on Hillary's Side?

John Edwards got more coverage on the day he withdrew from the race than he had received for some time as a candidate running against two political superstars. But he could once again claim center stage if the 64 delegates he won become the critical edge that allows one or the other of his rivals to reach the nomination. Yesterday's inconclusive results in the race for the Democratic mantle point to a protracted fight that could go all the way to the convention.

It sounds bizarre that of the 4,049 delegate votes cast in the Democratic primary process, such a small fraction could make a difference. But that's where we're headed. If Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama can't win the requisite 2,025 delegates on their own in the upcoming primaries and caucuses, we could be looking at a brokered convention.

That hasn't happened since 1952, when Adlai Stevenson didn't win his party's nomination until the third ballot at the convention in Chicago. Since then, every nominee has secured the nomination on the first ballot; dreams of a brokered convention came to seem as retro as a rotary phone. But with Clinton and Obama see-sawing their way across the primary landscape, trading victories and sharing delegates under the party's rule of proportional representation, there is no resolution in sight. We are closer than ever before in our lifetimes to that fabled outcome political junkies have yearned for: a convention that is not just a canned, made-for-television event but a gathering where real news is made.

The Democrats are engaged in a classic war of attrition, and it's hard to tell which of the two has time on their side. The Clinton campaign is calling for a debate a week—beginning Monday on Fox News, a ploy that is normally reserved for underdogs. Obama has not yet indicated whether he'll play along. She's the better debater and if she's to emerge the victor, she has to get voters to take a second look at Obama now that he's a serious contender for president. Her campaign's hope is that the voters will find him wanting and come home to Hillary's more substantive, policy-oriented approach.

Obama won more Red States than Hillary, and he does better among white men, so he'll keep arguing that he's the better candidate to win in November. The next nine contests between now and March 3 are thought to favor Obama. They include Louisiana, where a number of local officials are backing him, and the so-called Potomac Primary on Feb. 12, when voters from the District of Columbia, Virginia and Maryland cast their ballots. Even if Obama wins all nine races, which is possible, nothing will be settled. The next pivot point is March 4, when Ohio and Texas vote, both delegate-rich Clinton strongholds, and the race could extend until at least April 22 with the Pennsylvania primary and possibly into the beginning of May when North Carolina votes.

Hillary is slightly behind in delegates won through primaries and caucuses. But she has an edge in superdelegates—the party officials, members of Congress, governors and other luminaries who make up almost 20 percent of the total delegate pool. Superdelegates were created after George McGovern's landslide defeat in 1972; they're meant to act as a brake on the passions of the people, much as the Senate is often described as the "saucer that cools" the impetuous desires of that populist rabble in the House. If the pattern we've seen so far continues, and the pendulum doesn't swing decisively to either of the candidates, Clinton and Obama could each emerge with roughly half of the delegates they need to win the nomination. Then the decision would fall to the superdelegates to decide the election. It wouldn't be the first time. "Without them, we would have been dead meat," recalls William Galston, who was on the Mondale campaign in 1984. Vice President Walter Mondale, the party establishment favorite, woke up on June 7, the day after the California primary, without a majority of the delegates. The superdelegates saved him. He knew every one of them by name, and how to find them on short notice. If it weren't for their support, Gary Hart would have been the nominee.

The other wild card that could determine the winner rests with the Michigan and Florida delegations. Clinton won both primaries, and her campaign is calling on the DNC to accept the results even though the party did not sanction the primaries. Clinton's was the only name on the Michigan ballot, and the Florida contest was not a fair fight with traditional campaigning. The results are tarnished and a possible outcome would be to call on the state parties to hold caucuses at the end of the process on or about June 3 to fairly assess voter sentiment. Florida has 185 delegates at stake, Michigan 156. Hanging chads won't decide the Democratic nominee. Still, the echoes of the Florida 2000 debacle should be warning enough for the party to get its house in order while there's still time.