This week’s Democratic primaries in Indiana and North Carolina may not have been the knockout blow Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were seeking. But both contenders are now so bloodied that it is time for the referee to stop the fight and declare the winner. By any reasonable yardstick, that is Mr Obama.
The young senator from Illinois won a thumping victory in North Carolina and held Mrs Clinton to a very small advantage in Indiana. Her recovery has now been checked, and was partly illusory anyway: even in the trough of “Bittergate” and with the Rev Jeremiah Wright around his neck like an albatross, Mr Obama was still widening his lead in delegates. He has now demonstrably recovered his élan.
Mrs Clinton, by contrast, is beginning to look as though she would need about three-quarters of the remaining uncommitted super-delegates to come within hailing distance of victory. Her campaign, moreover, is running out of money and she is again having to raid her own funds to keep it alive.
From the point of view of the Democrats’ prospects in November, this campaign is now getting dangerously dirty, with both sides entrenching themselves within almost tribalised constituencies: white, working-class voters, women and the elderly for Mrs Clinton, black voters , the college-educated and the politically awakened young for Mr Obama.
It is not just the animosity that is growing visibly between them and significant groups of their rival coalitions – some of whom are indicating they will not close ranks and turn out to vote for the eventual victor – that should tell the party the contest is over. Nor is it just the strident attack advertising that is building up an arsenal of ammunition for John McCain, their Republican opponent, to use.
The Clinton camp is resorting to tactics intended to delegitimise Mr Obama: casting him as merely another black candidate, who has built his lead in party caucuses rather than on clear wins in the big states the Democrats will need to carry in November. This is bogus.
Indiana, a state sociologically not unlike Pennsylvania or Ohio, was practically a dead heat. Mr Obama won by 14 points in North Carolina, a state that elected Senator Jesse Helms – an arch-conservative Republican – for 30 years until his retirement in 2002. Mr Obama is not gaming the system; he is winning.
He has been severely and usefully tested against the formidable Mrs Clinton. The super-delegates should now exercise their judgment. Mr Obama, bruised as he is, looks much the best bet. And it is high time to put Mr McCain to the test.
The Financial Times