WASHINGTON — Barack Obama's primary victory in Mississippi on Tuesday raises a question: If a Democrat wins a Democratic primary in a Republican state, does it make a sound that can be heard in the fall?
The Illinois Democrat thinks it does. Obama thinks his wins in solidly Republican states such as Mississippi not only help him now for the Democratic presidential nomination, but also signal that he can compete for those states in the fall against presumptive Republican nominee John McCain.
Ridiculous, counters New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. Her camp says no Democrat can win those solidly Republican states in November, so Obama's victories in them now are misleading. Clinton's campaign assumes that another close election is unavoidable.
Who's right? The answer is crucial. It could influence the 300 or so Democratic superdelegates who are wavering between Obama and Clinton. If they believe that Obama could put some "red" states into play this fall, that would be a powerful reason to back him for the nomination. If not, they could swing to Clinton, who's shown more strength in reliably Democratic powerhouse states such as California, New Jersey and Massachusetts, as well as the Republican swing state of Ohio.
If Obama wins the nomination, his bid to win Republican states could make the difference between a close election and a Democratic landslide that could realign the country's political landscape, perhaps for years.
The key is independents and Republicans; many of each have crossed over in Republican states to support Obama in Democratic primaries and caucuses.
What Obama doesn't know is how solidly he won them over.
Some, no doubt, will stick with him.
Some, however, might have voted for him only to vote against Clinton. Some might have voted for him only because their party's nomination was already essentially wrapped up. And some may have voted for him in the belief that he'd be easier to beat in November.
"There's no guarantee those votes will be there in the fall," said Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State University in California.
"We just don't know how many of those people went over to him temporarily or whether he can attract them in the fall. If this is not just a temporary primary-day story in these states, we really could be seeing the making of a realigning election."
With Mississippi, Obama's now won primaries or caucuses in 27 states — 16 of them states that voted for Republican George Bush in 2004, and 11 of them states that voted for Democrat John Kerry.
Obama himself cites the diversity of his victories as proof that he's building a Democratic coalition that will win in November and redraw the red-blue map that's largely defined presidential politics for more than a decade.
He said recently that he's bringing together "blacks and whites, Latinos and Asians and Native Americans, small states and big states, red states and blue states, all into the United States of America."
Obama's camp insists that Clinton can't match his ability to expand the Democratic coalition.
"They are simply not going to be able to put as many states in play," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said Wednesday. "The Democratic Party simply cannot afford to have another election where we have a very narrow battleground and a very small margin for error."
He said Obama can compete this fall in traditionally Republican states that Clinton has no chance of winning, such as Colorado, Virginia and North Carolina.
"They (the Clinton camp) say that the Democratic nominee could not carry the Carolinas. We think that speaks to their weakness," Plouffe said. "North Carolina is going to be a central battleground if Barack Obama is our nominee."
Clinton aides dispute the enduring value of Obama's red-state victories.
"In reality, there are no `Red States' in a Democratic primary," said Clinton adviser Harold Ickes in a recent memo. "There are only Democratic voters who live in Republican states and represent a small percentage of the general election population."
He noted that 10 of Obama's victories came in "core" Republican states where Kerry lost by at least 15 percentage points: Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Carolina and Utah.
"Even if Obama is `transcendent,' as his campaign has argued, the historic electoral trends and the current political environment suggest that translating those primary wins into November success will be close to impossible," Ickes wrote.
Clinton's Michigan chairman went so far as to dismiss Democratic delegates from red-state caucuses as "second-class," as though they shouldn't get full votes at the convention.
Clay F. Richards, who's watching the state-by-state results closely as assistant director of the Polling Institute at Connecticut's Quinnipiac University, agreed that winning a deep-red state in March is a far cry from winning it in November.
"I don't think a state like Wyoming is going to go Democratic just because Obama swept the Democratic caucuses there," Richards said.
But what about Clinton, whose aides also have boasted of her ability to win in red states?
She's won 14 states, eight of them Republican red states and six of them Democratic blue ones.
While she boasts of her wins in big states such as California and New York, those states are very likely to stay in the Democratic column regardless of who wins the nomination.
Her biggest primary win arguably was Ohio, the swing state that went for President Bush in 2004, giving him the general election. She won Ohio's Democratic primary by a solid 54-44 percent.
If she could win there in November while holding all the other states that Kerry won, she'd be on her way to the White House.
Said Richards: "From what we have seen, she would be the stronger candidate in the fall in these big swing states."
DEMOCRATS' STRENGTH BY STATE
Want another way to look at the Democrats' strengths in pivotal states? Look at how they're doing in the 11 states that were closest in 2004.
Clinton has won four: New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio and Nevada
Obama has won four: Iowa, Colorado, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Three have yet to vote or have their votes counted: Michigan, Oregon and Pennsylvania.