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War of Attrition

August 2008 in the Mile High City, and tempers are as inflated as the altitude.

Grim-faced political types swig Dasani and man BlackBerries (smoked-filled back rooms are so-o-o-o last century) as a protracted fight over the seating of the Florida and Michigan delegations to the Democratic National Convention captures center stage.

After all the speeches, the debates, the primaries and caucuses, it has come down to this: Will New York Sen. Hillary Clinton or Illinois Sen. Barack Obama prevail in the battle to reverse party rules and give a convention voice to two states punished for holding primaries before Feb. 5?

Say yes to Florida and Michigan, and Clinton faces Republican Sen. John McCain in November.

Say no, and Obama is the Democratic nominee.

Either way, hundreds of convention delegates go home feeling heartbroken, battered and bruised.

Far-fetched? Not especially.

With an incumbent GOP president's popularity scraping bottom, the economy teetering, a foreign war failing and an electorate hungry for change, Democrats can almost taste the presidential victory so narrowly denied them in 2000 and 2004.

Voters flock to their primaries, including Virginia's this past Tuesday. Money floods the bank accounts of their candidates. Polls find that a quarter or less of Americans think the nation is headed in the right direction. Victory permeates the air.

But as the nomination fight narrows to two, as egalitarian party rules mitigate a knockout punch by either Obama or Clinton and as a war hero with independent-voter appeal unexpectedly cements a Republican nomination, a nightmare scenario is emerging for a party famous of late for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

If the Democrats' nomination fight grinds on through June and July, if the rhetoric and the ads turn savage (or even sharp-edged, South Carolina-style), if several hundred insiders known as superdelegates are perceived as thwarting the will of the masses, then woe be to the nominee, whomever he or she may be.

"Our task tonight is to make sure that the next president is a Democrat," Clinton gamely told thousands of party members poised for revival at the annual Jefferson-Jackson Day fundraising dinner Saturday night in Richmond. Obama fired up the crowd a few hours later.

Whether Clinton herself can hold to such selfless purpose while watching her once-commanding lead evaporate, and whether Obama supporters can avoid cynicism or disgust if his steam-roller falters in Texas and Ohio March 4, may well tip the balance in November.

Not that McCain and his restive Republican legions aren't capable of easing the Democrats' burden with a little bloodletting of their own. From former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay to radio blowhard Rush Limbaugh, the party's evangelical-friendly right wing has greeted McCain's candidacy with all the enthusiasm of a Boston sports fan forced to share a cab ride with Eli Manning.

"It will be critical for conservatives to be enthusiastically united behind McCain's candidacy, and we're not there now," said Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling late last week, after Super Tuesday voting made the Arizona senator the prohibitive favorite for the GOP nod.

Bolling's prescription for a truce -- "abandon this misguided amnesty for illegals"… "get off this global warming kick" … "support a federal marriage amendment" … "pick a well-respected, solid conservative for vice president" — might convert conservative doubters.

But it also could carry crippling side effects if independent voters inclined toward McCain are put off by the transformation. The wrong balance could topple McCain from the high wire.

Even so, the apparent settling of the GOP contest in early February gives Republicans a huge advantage. Every contested nomination requires a period of convalescence before the losing side heals. An eight-month recovery is likely to be a lot more stable than a two- or three-month one.

If the Democratic contest drags on until the Aug. 25-28 convention, the adjustment period will have to be squeezed into a mere 68 days.

Fortunately for Democrats, the fact has not gone unnoticed. Richmonder Susan Swecker, chair of the Democratic National Committee's Southern Caucus, echoes party chairman Howard Dean in saying that a nomination battle deep into the summer would be a mistake.

"I don't think it would be healthy" to have a contested convention, she says. "Once the dust settles on all the primaries, we need to see where the vote total is and adults need to weigh in."

"Everybody gets it," University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato adds. If no clear winner emerges before the last primary in early June, "then the leadership will have to take over and hammer out something. … If it comes down to the superdelegates or Michigan and Florida, then the Democrats can just save their money."

So exactly how would such a brokered settlement be obtained? That's when the symbolism of two historic candidacies could become more of a handicap than a strength.

Would Hillary do the "womanly" thing and subjugate herself for the good of all?

Would Barack voluntarily move to the back of the bus, so to speak?

Democrats desperate to win in November had best hope that one candidate or the other, armed with nothing more barbed than friendly persuasion, emerges with a clear majority of convention delegates — and soon. S

Margaret Edds is an editorial writer for The Virginian-Pilot who is based in Richmond. E-mail her at margaret.edds@pilotonline.com.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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