03 March 2008

The Coronation? Not Just Yet

Funny how most media pundits are lemmings. There is one narrative and nobody ever seems to stray from that.

First, it was the inevitable Hillary Clinton. When that proved wrong, everyone rushed to dissect the how and the why. Then it was the fight to the finish. And when Barack Obama won 11 straight contests, another "correction" set in. Finally, on the eve of the "showdown" contests in Ohio and Texas, everybody is busy writing the obits of the Hillary campaign.

As Lee Corso is prone to say: "Not so fast, my friend."

There is a chance, a good chance, that Clinton will win both Ohio and Texas primaries. And if that were to happen, the obits will be suddenly written for the Obama campaign, and for good reason. If with all the momentum and adulation of the press on his side, he's still unable to deliver the knockout blow to the dysfunctional Clinton campaign, then his viability as the Democrats' nominee must be questioned, severely.

Simply put, Tuesday may represent the Battle of the Marne, or Stalingrad, for Obama, depending on which World War is closer to your heart.

There is a good reason to worry about Obama's prospects. First and foremost, the polls are telling. For the last two weeks, he's had a lead in Texas, but never statistically meaningful. So at best he's in a dead heat in the Lone Star State. As for Ohio, after surging to close down a double-digit deficit, Obama has seen his support collapse. While he came within 4 points of Clinton about a week ago, the new polls show that the gap has again reached double digits.

He will lose Ohio, maybe big, thus delivering Clinton a reprieve she needed, no matter what happens in Texas.

And let's not forget Rhode Island and Vermont, either, even if both candidates apparently did. Clinton might win both, adding to victories in Ohio, perhaps even Texas, she'd be the one riding on a four-state sweep and that magic carpet -- momentum.

So how did this gloomy picture emerge for Obama, completely unnoticed?

Besides the media's propensity of being a herd, their inability to peel away a seemingly reliable trend is to blame. The narrative goes like this: Clinton has the name recognition, but when people get to know Obama, they gravitate toward him and abandon Clinton.

The narrative is on target, with a heretofore undiscovered caveat: It only works when the exposure is rapid and short. When the voters see too much of Obama, they go back to the default choice Clinton.

After winning the opening contest in Iowa, Obama has won a string of victories where he either had only about a week to sell himself to the voters, or, in the case of Tsunami Tuesday, he had to spread himself around to a number of states. When the voters saw him in short appearances and got the "hopeful" soundbites, they fell for him en masse.

But when the voters head to the polls on Tuesday, it will have been three weeks since Obama's resounding victories in Wisconsin and Hawaii. Three weeks, in politics, is an eternity. Ohio and Texas voters will have had ample opportunities to examine the candidates. And upon further review, it's likely that their initial excitement about Obama would've worn off by election day.

Obama has been winning with this formula: Have a terrific ground operation that's well organized to get him into the voters' consciousness; then he swoops in to close the deal. Aside from New Hampshire, when he was not yet battle-hardened, he's been a great closer. And as anyone in sales will tell you: When you close the deal, pick up the check and leave, before anybody changes their mind.

In this case, Obama made his sale but he had to hang around the house for far too long. By the time he's finally allowed to leave, he might end up empty-handed.

If he is unable to close the deal in Ohio or Texas, big problems lie ahead for Obama. Clinton might not catch him in the delegate count, but she would've seized the high ground once again by dominating in two more big states, adding to her haul of California, New York, New Jersey and disingenuously, also Florida and Michigan. And with six weeks to campaign in Pennsylvania, with no one else holding a contest between March 11 and May 3, Clinton will be the heavy favorite to gobble up another big state on April 22.

The trouble with being the frontrunner is you're forced to play defense. Protecting is more important than invading. Obama has done well in the two debates with Clinton, fighting her to a draw. But there is this nagging sense that Obama-fatigue has set in for the voters: They're now once again vacillating and wondering if he is the real deal.

Tuesday is a big day. Not just for Hillary Clinton. But it might be a do-or-die, for both candidates.

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