WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton's Pennsylvania victory means that the Democratic Party's eventual nominee will be badly bruised and could have a tough time rallying the party in the fall.
Clinton on Tuesday once again failed to do well among young and African-American voters, who are growing increasingly alienated from the New York senator. She won with some harsh tactics — too harsh for a lot of Barack Obama supporters.
Obama, on the other hand, stumbled badly. He outspent Clinton by an estimated 3 to 1. He had six weeks since the last primary to ingratiate himself with people he's had a hard time wooing: blue-collar whites, small-town residents and older women. Instead, he once again lost the white vote handily and couldn't put his opponent away.
The momentum that seemed so strong in February, when Obama won 11 contests in a row and seemed on the verge of knocking Clinton out of the race, was all but gone Tuesday.
Also gone, or at least fading, was the feeling among Democratic voters on both sides that either candidate ultimately would be acceptable.
While Democrats remain angry over the Iraq war, the economy and President Bush, they've grown less inclined to accept their favorite candidate's Democratic opponent as a prospective president.
The deepening Clinton-Obama schism became more pronounced after last Wednesday's Philadelphia debate.
Obama backers insisted that their man was treated unfairly when the Illinois senator was asked about his relationship with his former pastor and '60s-era radical Willliam Ayers. They argued that Obama did the right thing by staying gentle in his explanations.
Clinton folks saw the performance differently. They were disturbed that Obama didn't put more distance between himself and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who has suggested that past U.S. actions were partly responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and that the HIV virus was a government plot against people of color.
If Obama gets the nomination, lots of Clinton backers said, they'd give presumptive Republican nominee John McCain a look.
Obama backers said the same, should Clinton be the nominee.
"I love Obama," said Aimee Brace, a Williamsport housewife who switched her registration to Democrat. "He has a real down-to-earth way. If Clinton gets it, I don't know what I'd do. I'd be lost."
Democratic leaders sensed this increasing rupture between the Clinton and Obama camps, and in recent days they've pleaded with the superdelegates who control about 20 percent of the convention votes, and with them, the balance of power.
"I need them to say who they're for, starting now," party Chairman Howard Dean said of the superdelegates last week. "We've got to know who our nominee is."
The surest way to have gotten a quick decision would have been if Obama had won Pennsylvania. That would have instantly dispelled the notion that he lacks appeal in a big diverse state and restore the aura that made him a star in an array of states as different as Vermont, Minnesota, Virginia and Louisiana this winter.
By Wednesday, this thinking went, the media would have been declaring the race all but over and the superdelegates would have had a fresh reason to leap on the Obama bandwagon. He'd be officially anointed this generation's John F. Kennedy, ready to inspire the masses with his vision and vigor.
Instead, the verdict Wednesday will remain the same: Pennsylvania joins the roster of Clinton wins that stretches from Massachusetts and New Jersey on the East Coast to Texas and Ohio in the middle and California in the West.
But Clinton still can't break Obama's hold on black and young voters. He won 92 percent of the black vote, according to exit polls, and between 56 percent and 58 percent of voters under 45.
Similarly, however, Obama can't shake that a lot of whites are uncomfortable with a black as president, as exit polls showed him losing the white vote by 60-40 percent — a consistent trend in recent primaries.
Yet Clinton's harsh campaign may be turning Obama's flaws into open wounds that prove difficult to heal by November.
And so, the party is left again in a stalemate without apparent end.
The campaigns now head for May 6 primaries in Indiana and North Carolina. North Carolina, where roughly 40 percent of the Democratic voters are black, is expected to be solid Obama territory, but Indiana promises to be less predictable.
The two camps will undoubtedly paint the state as a make-or-break affair, but it offers only 72 delegates. With 2,025 needed to nominate, Indiana's an unlikely game-changer.
So on a day when the Democratic race remains muddled, this much is clear: Obama remains the favorite for the nomination, but it's not a comfortable lead.
McClatchy Newspapers 2008