- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2008

This has not been a good week for the Democrats. New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, the most prominent Democratic governor in the country, who built his reputation on prosecuting the crooks on Wall Street, has been caught patronizing high-priced call girls in a prostitution ring. He resigned yesterday.

Mr. Spitzer, a holier-than-thou-force against wrong-doing, has become this year’s poster boy for hypocrisy, arrogance and moral turpitude — not the public image Democrats want in the middle of their election-year campaign to portray the Republicans as mired in a “culture of corruption.”

The timing of all this hurts them, too. The stunning revelations about the governor have effectively wiped the Democratic presidential race off much of the nation’s front pages just as it is moving toward the home stretch.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, once a seemingly unstoppable force for the presidency, now seems incapable of catching up to Sen. Barack Obama who is more than 100 delegates ahead of her in the nominating race. Sadly, she and her husband, Bill Clinton, are making desperate claims that don’t hold up to even minimal scrutiny, making both of them look, well, silly.

The former president has been suggesting his wife and Mr. Obama can settle their differences if he would agree to be her running-mate — an idea the freshman senator so effectively ridiculed that it became the laughingstock of the campaign.

He has won more primaries than she has, received more votes than she has and accumulated more delegates than she has, Mr. Obama said Monday as he campaigned in Mississippi. “So I don’t know how somebody who’s in second place is offering the vice presidency to somebody who’s in first place,” he said to the delight of the crowd at Mississippi University for Women.

But Mr. Obama was just getting started with a stand-up act better than anything seen on “Saturday Night Live” lately. Hillary has been running around the country saying he was not ready to be president, a charge that will no doubt be at the core of John McCain’s campaign if Mr. Obama is his opponent in the general election.

But, he told his audience, “I don’t understand. If I’m not ready, how is it you think I would be such a great vice president?” He enjoyed quoting Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign statement that the critical criterion for a vice president was “someone who would be a good president, if, God forbid, something happened to me a week after I took office.” The Clinton campaign seemed to be losing its pitch, throwing out softballs with little force or strategic thought behind them, while Mr. Obama was slugging them over the fence.

Meanwhile, the Democrats were once again fuming and fighting over their presidential nominating rules in an escalating war that senior advisers say threatens to divide the party and damage its prospects in November.

These rules have forced the Democratic National Committee to strip Florida and Michigan of its delegates to the national convention, triggering charges of disenfranchising millions of their voters; empowered 795 super-delegates to pick a nominee in the event of a deadlock, regardless of the primary results; and raised questions about the efficacy of a long-drawn-out proportional delegate-selection process that may not produce a nominee before the convention in August.

If Democratic leaders cannot clean up this mess, the result “would be a disaster for the party which would be a very divisive floor fight and a lot of bitter feelings about whoever gets the nomination that somehow it was stolen by a backroom deal,” said former Clinton White House chief of staff Leon Panetta.

Mr. Panetta, who supports Hillary, told me the party needs to seat the Florida and Michigan delegates in a way that is seen as fair to both candidates — a goal that seems beyond reach for now.

Longer-term, “the whole primary system needs to be re-examined,” he said. “We need to have a regional system rather than have states fighting to be first in line. We ought to move to a winner-take-all primary process. It’s a cleaner approach to have someone win a primary and it’s fair. A majority vote usually wins in our system of democracy.”

The specter of a bunch of superdelegates in smoke-filled rooms deciding who the nominee will be bothers many Democrats who fear it will poison the party’s nominating process and hurt its chances in the fall.

“I don’t think anyone envisioned that the superdelegates would decide who the nominee would be. I think that’s a big difficulty, but we can talk about it after the election,” said New Hampshire Democratic Chairman Ray Buckley.

As things stand now, it appears neither candidate can reach the magic 2,025 delegates needed to clinch the nomination in the primaries. But if Mr. Obama’s delegate lead holds, the proportional system Mr. Panetta wants to scrap will keep him ahead of Mrs. Clinton to the end.

Then, in a scenario Democratic leaders fear most, the remaining 300 or so unpledged superdelegates will decide who wins. It could get very ugly.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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