- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2008

Presidential candidates are a lot like new shoes. They fit better after a few strolls around the block. A candidate’s flaws that look fatal in April look more like footnotes in October.

The row between the women and the blacks in the Democratic primaries is more entertainment than meltdown, but some Democrats are about to reach for the panic button. When the going gets tough the not-so-tough surrender to hysteria. The new polling numbers by Rasmussen, the most reliable pollster of the moment, would in fact be terrifying for the Democrats if this were October. But this is only almost April, not October.

What’s happening among the Democrats illustrates once more that slam dunks are for March Madness, not presidential elections. Barring candidates like George McGovern and Barry Goldwater, there are no slam dunks in November. Only a few weeks ago, the Democrats could hardly wait for November, plotting to leave Iraq in confusion and chaos, to raise taxes, to make nice with the nation’s enemies, to pump up the welfare state, to do for health care what we’ve done for public education. Republicans, ever eager to show the white feather when a Democrat says boo, were looking for the best and fastest routes out of town. Who could blame them? The media, ever eager to demonstrate even-handedness and a lack of bias, were in thrall to Obama and not quite ready to abandon the Clinton myth, but keen to encourage Republican despair.

But now look: Barack Obama, once the beige knight on a dappled horse, got caught hanging out with hatemongers and America-lasters in Chicago, and Hillary, ever the coquette, got caught flirting with the race issue, making up war stories about her heroics in Bosnia, and otherwise being a Clinton. Now both Hillary and Obama are villains among the party faithful, depending on which faithful you talk to, and Rasmussen finds that substantial numbers of Democrats don’t want either one of them, with 1 in 5 saying both should quit and let someone else try. But 4 of 5 Democrats don’t want the struggle to end, which is a measure of the depth of the mutual rage.

John McCain has opened 10-point leads over both Obama and Hillary in the latest measurement of national sentiment. Some of the most frightened Democrats even want to bring Al Gore in from the cold, as it were, and crown the king of the melting solar system as the man who can “bring us together.” (Try not to laugh.) Nobody talks about slam dunks any longer, though a 10-point McCain lead on Election Day would translate to “landslide.”

Restoring the Democratic National Convention, like its counterpart moribund for decades as nothing more than a pep rally, to a real nominating convention was dismissed as a pipe dream of bored reporters and conniving pundits as recently as Christmas. Now nobody rules out anything. A floor fight over whether to seat the delegates elected in the disputed primaries in Florida and Michigan could set everything afire, and a runaway convention might nominate anyone. Barack Obama could, in this event, practice unifying the country by first unifying the Democratic Party, acceding to Al Gore or someone else as the third way to the White House. This would give him a long leg up four years hence, when John McCain would likely be completing his first and only term. Who knows what the Clintons would do.

Nevertheless — and this is the big nevertheless — there’s scant evidence that the gap between left and right, between red states and blue, has closed. Bill Clinton, the most popular Democrat of his generation, never won a majority of the popular vote. George W. Bush won two national elections, but only barely. The margins of the past two decades are not likely to tighten this year. We’re as divided as we ever were, and as salutary as the right landslide might be in calming tempers and soothing anger we won’t see one this year. Slam dunks are for pituitary giants running up and down the floor in colorful underwear. The rest of us, like it or not, will have to break in new shoes.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Times.

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