Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Task of Huckabee and Clinton: Define Their End Games

Barack Obama and John McCain were the winners of their respective parties presidential primaries in Wisconsin today. Obama appears ready to win the Democratic caucuses in Hawaii and McCain in the Republican caucuses in Washington, each candidate winning the sole contests happening in their respective party.

The math is inexorable. Mike Huckabee cannot defeat McCain for the Republican nomination. And only a collective decision on the part of the Democrats' superdelegates to ignore the verdicts of primary and caucus voters this election season, the political equivalent of drinking Jonestown Cool-aid, would result in a Clinton nomination. In order for the superdelegates to go for Clinton in a big way and deny Obama the nomination he's earning, she will have to roll up massive majorities here in Ohio and in Texas in two weeks. Unless Obama self-destructs, that won't happen.

So, both Huckabee and Clinton need to design their end games.

For Huckabee, the task is more urgent. He announced tonight, before a press conference in Little Rock, the silence of which bore a marked contrast to the noise level of McCain's enthusiastic rally in Columbus, that he was going to continue his nomination fight. You could almost hear the crickets chirping.

Huckabee should have graciously withdrawn one week ago, when he was unable to capitalize on his Super Tuesday wins. That he was still in the race last Monday is understandable, that he remained on Wednesday, questionable.

If he keeps on in the next round of primaries in Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island, and Vermont, he simply looks obdurate. More than that, collared with four more contested losses, he risks negating all the good he's done himself as a national figure in this year's election process. It takes only one loss too many for a candidate to become Stassenized, a candidate so obsessed with running that they become irrelevant, the worst fate that can befall a politician.

If Mike Huckabee backs out now, there are two things he earns: (1) A prime time speech at the Republican National Convention, an opportunity to play party and national statesman, an audition before a national audience. The importance of this shouldn't be underestimated. Barack Obama has used his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention to become the presumptive nominee of his party. (2) Solidifying his claim to being the next presumptive presidential nominee of the succession-minded Republican Party. Although it appeared that Republicans flirted with the idea of departing from their custom of rewarding their presidential nomination to the candidate marked by voters as next in line, they're returning to form by voting for McCain this year. Mike Huckabee may be anathema to some in his party. But by outperforming the well-heeled Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, as well as every other Republican candidate for the nomination but the senator from Arizona, he has earned the status of GOP frontrunner for 2012 or 2016, depending on what happens with McCain in November.

Huckabee doesn't want to blow this. While he's going to have to broaden his appeal beyond those who, like him, want to amend the Constitution to conform with the Bible, his future in presidential politics is relatively bright. He's shown himself to be one of the best retail politicians around these days, a guy of tenacity, eloquence, wit, and moral authority, irrespective of his politics. Huckabee's end game now must have as its goal keeping that future bright. A quick withdrawal, say tomorrow in Texas, will contribute to that end.

At present, it appears that the most Hillary Clinton can achieve by remaining in the campaign to the bitter end, is damaging Obama's chances of winning in the fall. Of course, if Clinton wins both Texas and Ohio--but only if she wins in both states, she should stay in the race. But a loss in either place in two weeks should be her cue to graciously withdraw from the race.

This is the Democrats' year to lose. Unfortunately for Democrats, as Democratic functionary James Carville has pointed out, their party has shown a shocking propensity for losing elections that should have been won. As desperately as she wants to be president, in two weeks, I believe, Clinton will decide if she wants that so much that she's willing to put John McCain in the Oval Office.

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