The last time Dems were considering which presidential hopeful should be the party’s standard-bearer, Howard Dean screamed (video link) and a frightened rank-and-file hurriedly anointed John Kerry the frontrunner – deeming him the most “electable” in the field – and then had the rest of the campaign to repent at leisure as Kerry became embroiled in controversy after controversy surrounding his extremely brief tour of duty in Vietnam, his accusations of U.S. war crimes while soldiers were still in harm’s way, medals he may not have deserved and medals he may not have renounced.

Perhaps with that history in mind, Hillary Clinton has long been insisting that Barack Obama has not been thoroughly vetted – as she says she has been – and that the party may be getting another pig in a poke.

Since January 23rd, when the gloves first came off, Hillary and Obama have succeeded in battling each other to a Mexican standoff. But is it ultimately in the best interests of the party to “resolve” the stalemate by forcing Hillary out and simply declaring Obama the winner?

For weeks now, Dem party leaders have been openly fretting that the fight for their party’s nomination has devolved into a down-and-dirty freestyle brawl that will cripple the eventual winner’s ability to prevail against John McCain in the general election – if nothing else, both candidates are practically writing the scripts for McCain’s campaign ads. Those who aren’t calling for Hillary to quit now are floating all sorts of schemes to force the roughly 300 uncommitted superdelegates into declaring a preference well ahead of the party’s August convention in Denver.

Gov. Phil Bredesen (D-TN), who has yet to endorsed a candidate and is pushing for superdelegate summit in June immediately after the votes are tallied in the final nominating contest, tells The New York Times “They are going to just keep standing there and pounding each other and bloodying each other, and no one is winning.”

He won’t get an argument from The Times, which published an editorial the day after the PA primary titled “The Low Road to Victory,” demanding that either Hillary concede the fight or the superdelegates simply declare Obama the winner on points:

The Pennsylvania campaign, which produced yet another inconclusive result on Tuesday, was even meaner, more vacuous, more desperate, and more filled with pandering than the mean, vacuous, desperate, pander-filled contests that preceded it.

Voters are getting tired of it; it is demeaning the political process; and it does not work.

It is past time for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton to acknowledge that the negativity, for which she is mostly responsible, does nothing but harm to her, her opponent, her party and the 2008 election. …

It is getting to be time for the superdelegates to do what the Democrats had in mind when they created superdelegates: settle a bloody race that cannot be won at the ballot box.

The next day, The Washington Post cautioned against calling the fight prematurely in Obama’s favor:

This is a contest between two formidable candidates, each of whom has proven appeal to millions of voters. The party rules provide for primaries through early June. Why should voters in those states be told, “Never mind”? The lengthy primary contest may not be in the best interest of the Democratic Party, which would rather be gearing up for November, but it has served to clarify the two candidates’ strengths and weaknesses – matters that would come to the fore in the general election anyway. Thanks to the continuing race, Democrats can assess now the impact of Mr. Obama’s relationship with his former pastor or his comments about “bitter” working-class voters; likewise, they can take into account Ms. Clinton’s rising unfavorability ratings. Democrats can look at the clear demographic divide between the two contenders.

Dem voters appear to be at odds with their party’s leadership on the matter. In a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 53 percent of Dems who support one of the two candidates want the race to end when one candidate clearly wins, rather than as soon as possible, and half do not believe the party’s prospects in the general election will be affected if the two candidates battle for the nomination until the bitter end (17 percent even think it’s good for their side).  

More troubling for the Dems’ chances in November, exit polls of 2,270 PA primary voters taken at 40 precincts across the state found that a third of them had a beef against one of the candidates, that one in four Clinton supporters would vote for McCain if Obama is the nominee and that one in six Obama supporters would vote for McCain if Hillary is the nominee. It’s impossible to know what percentage of  these disaffected voters would actually make good on their threat – or even stay home on Election Day - but they would be less likely to do so if their concerns were completely vetted and allayed, instead of swept under the rug and ignored.

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Dick Polman notes:

[I]n most primaries, Obama has stumbled at the finish line because voters making up their minds during the final 24 hours have tended to break for Clinton, the known quantity. Well, in Pennsylvania it happened again. Eleven percent made up their minds on the last day; 6 out of 10 wound up breaking for Clinton, thereby padding her victory margin. [Emphasis, The Stiletto.]

Clearly, Obama has some ‘splaining to do to the voters Hillary is attracting so that he can deliver the knockout punch to her aspirations by getting a substantial percentage of them to vote for him. Bobbing, weaving and ducking won’t cut it anymore – for instance, not deigning to address Hillary’s charge that he won’t be tough on terrorism didn’t go over too well in PA, one of the states directly affected by the 9/11 terror attack.

Providence Journal columnist Froma Harrop wants to know: “what was so shocking, terrible and unfair about flashing Osama bin Laden’s ugly mug on a political advertisement?” She adds:

Hillary Clinton’s TV spot was the first Democratic ad to make pictorial reference to the al-Qaida terrorist.  It was about time. …

[T]he ad itself wasn’t as effective a pitch for Clinton as was the indignant response of Barack Obama’s surrogates. An Obama spokesman condemned the spot as “the politics of fear.”

If Obama’s supporters want to argue that their candidate can better handle these challenges than Clinton, then fine, they should do so. But for some unfathomable reason, they insist on drumming Osama bin Laden out of polite Democratic conversation, such as there is any these days.

Obama also needs to diffuse the distracting controversies that have lately beset his campaign involving verbal gaffes and impolitic personal associations so they don’t continue to dog him going forward. Conservative talk show radio host Jerry Agar (WPTF-680 AM, Raleigh, NC) makes the case that Obama – who has been countering Hillary’s charge that he lacks experience by claiming he has better judgment – has repeatedly betrayed a lack of judgment. If he cannot dispel a deepening unease amongst the traditional Dem base over the course of the next – and final – nine contests, the superdelegates will have to take this into consideration in their deliberations. 

The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib quite sensibly asks: “If there are uncomfortable subjects to be aired about Sen. Obama or Sen. Clinton, isn’t it better for Democrats to have them raised, aired and answered now rather than in October, with just weeks to go before a national vote?” It may be a bitter pill to swallow, but in their hearts Dems know he’s right. Certainly party chairman Howard Dean knows it: He tells the WaPo he is “less concerned than a lot of Democrats” about the consequences of allowing the candidates to duke it out until there’s only one left standing. “I wouldn’t think anybody would drop out at this point, nor have I ever suggested anyone should.”

Closure may prove costly to Dem party pooh-bahs in the end, so they should be careful what they wish for – or push for.

Note: The Stiletto writes about politics and other stuff at The Stiletto Blog, chosen an Official Honoree in the Political Blogs category by the judges of the 12th Annual Webby Awards (the Oscars of the online universe) along with CNN Political Ticker, Swampland (Time magazine) and The Caucus (The New York Times).

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