- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The battle over “bitter” is bleeding into the electorate, with all signs pointing to more ugly fights before the next Democratic presidential contests.

Polarized Pennsylvania voters yesterday mirrored the sentiment among Democrats nationwide — with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s and Sen. Barack Obama’s supporters standing firm with their choices and suggesting that they wouldn’t back the other — signaling a dangerously divisive race for the Democrats in the weeks to come.

The razor-sharp negative campaign — increasing in nastiness by the day — has some Democratic leaders worried and has prompted party officials this week to scrap debate plans in advance of the next primaries.

Complicating the issue as Mrs. Clinton started to close in on Mr. Obama’s popular vote lead was his inability to win over Pennsylvania’s seniors, white males and blue-collar voters. It’s a major warning sign that gives Mrs. Clinton wide room to argue that she would be the better Democratic nominee, even though her possible path to winning remains difficult.

Presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain, meanwhile, can sit back and enjoy the spectacle of the Democrats bloodying each other for at least the next few weeks and, potentially, into the summer.

As the dust settles and the Democrats move on to Indiana — where she is favored for the May 6 contest but polls are tightening — and North Carolina, which he is expected to win, Mrs. Clinton will say the Pennsylvania result bolsters her claim she is “tested.”

Exit polls showed an alarming chasm between the two Democrats — with only half of Clinton voters saying they would back Mr. Obama should he win the nomination. One-quarter of Clinton voters would back Mr. McCain while 19 percent said they would stay home in November entirely.

Of Obama supporters, 67 percent said they would support Mrs. Clinton if she earns the party nod, 17 percent would back the Republican senator and 12 percent would not vote.

The exit polls showed many voters felt the candidates attacked each other.

“The negative campaigning doesn’t help,” said Ed Espinoza, an uncommitted Democratic superdelegate from California. “As a member of the DNC, the more negative campaigning they do, the more mess I have to clean up later.”

But Mr. Espinoza, a political consultant, said he was not as worried about the brutal long-term effects of the protracted Clinton-Obama fight as the exit polls suggested.

“In any election, people feel very strongly about their candidate, and they don’t want to consider the possibility that person would lose,” he said. “We have better candidates, better ideas and I think we’ll do what we need to do to bring our voters around come November.”

Mr. Espinoza plans to wait to back a candidate until after the May contests, saying he is glad that the entire nation is having a chance to weigh in on the nomination fight.

But some superdelegates — the state and local elected officials and party activists who will help ultimately decide the party’s nominee — may not wait. Several Democrats said privately that they expect Mr. Obama may reveal a group of superdelegates in the coming days to deflect from his Pennsylvania loss.

Some national party officials privately expressed relief that the lengthy Pennsylvania primary was over and that the nominating race had inched closer to its hoped-for conclusion after the last contests in Montana and South Dakota on June 3.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean last month asked the candidates to stop attacking each other, fearing it would damage the party’s chances in November. He also has asked the superdelegates to announce their intentions by July 1 “so that there isn’t a fight at the convention,” said DNC spokeswoman Stacie Paxton.

Mr. Dean told reporters yesterday that polls show either Democrat would beat Mr. McCain, adding: “Now it’s up to the voters to choose which one of them they want.”

Despite Mr. Obama’s optimistic message, his recent gaffe about rural voters’ feelings causing them to “cling” to guns and religion sent him right back to where he started when he was the underdog — failing to capture white male voters.

Obama spokesman Bill Burton pointed out his boss did better among seniors and white men in Pennsylvania than he did in Ohio on March 4. He also earned support from more than 90 percent of black voters and most of the new voters.

“Whether they were inspired for the first time or for the first time in a long time, we registered a record number of voters and it is those voters who will lead our party to victory in November,” Mr. Obama — already campaigning in Indiana — said last night.

He also noted Mrs. Clinton”s one-time major lead in Pennsylvania.

Mrs. Clinton said her win is a major triumph because Mr. Obama had the money to flood the airwaves with ads over the past six weeks, and she wants Democratic superdelegates to ask themselves just why Mr. Obama failed to close the deal despite plenty of time to get organized and meet voters.

She continued her trend of winning late deciders, although exit polls showed most voters expect Mr. Obama will be the Democratic nominee.

The message from the Clinton campaign is more than just spin — Illinois is the only large state in the Obama column, and she’s captured big swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. In the days before the next contests, it is a valid point for party activists to consider even though Mr. Obama says he can shake up the traditional electoral map.

The Clinton campaign said the $11.2 million that Mr. Obama spent on Pennsylvania media is more than any other primary contest to date and “more than any Democratic candidate spent on all their TV buys in all of 2004 to win the nomination.”

“We can only keep winning if we can keep competing with an opponent who outspends us so massively,” Mrs. Clinton said last night in a victory speech, sending voters to her Web site, HillaryClinton.com, which asked for small-dollar donations.

She will need the money. Mr. Obama early on dominated in $25 and $50 donations and has outraised her by $60 million in 2008 alone.

c Donald Lambro contributed to this report.

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