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Clinton vs. Obama Democratic race may be the ultimate 21st century shootout

"Blacks, women, Hispanics, Native Americans, workers." -- Jesse Jackson, describing his vision of a "Rainbow Coalition that would run the Democratic Party."

Over the past six months, all polls show that the race for the Democratic nomination has settled into a steady balance: Hillary Clinton in the 35 percent to 45 percent range and Barack Obama in the 20 percent to 30 percent range, with 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards third with about 10 percent to 15 percent and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson fourth with about 5 percent.

So the Democratic field is being led by a woman, a black, a white populist and a Hispanic. Which makes a certain sense, because the base of the Democratic Party is now women, minorities and white liberals.

Right now, Clinton is leading strongly among middle and lower income voters of all races over age 30, while wealthy, educated liberals and younger voters favor Obama. Unless she is upset in either Iowa or New Hampshire in January, she'll be on a glide path to the Democratic nomination.

In 1960, Theodore White noted that the national Democratic Party had three main pillars: labor, the big-city machines and the South. Much has changed since then.

The (white) South pretty much left the Democratic Party after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Jimmy Carter, in 1976, is the only Democratic nominee to carry a majority of Southern states since then.

Most big-city machines have long since crumbled due to population losses to suburbia and new civil service rules.

Labor is still very active in the party, but its influence has been hurt by declining membership levels.

With the South largely gone, and labor and the traditional machines in severe decline, control of the party has fallen to a coalition of minorities and white liberals -- Jesse Jackson voters and John Kerry/Howard Dean voters, one might say. Such is the terrain that will greet Democratic candidates in 2008.

With so many white males, particularly in the South, moving into the Republican ranks, this fact effectively increases the influence of minorities and white women within the Democratic Party. Since 1980, a solid majority, about 54 percent, of Democratic voters have been women. It is estimated that the Democratic electorate is 25 percent black, 10 percent Hispanic, 5 percent "other" minorities, 5 percent gay and 35 percent white women, with straight white males being only about a quarter of the vote. The Clinton-Obama tilt could yet become a test of the party's two biggest pillars.

Former vice president Al Gore has said he has "no plans" to run again, but he hasn't completely ruled it out either. If Gore chose to get in, he would likely be Clinton's toughest opponent.

On Election Day 2000 -- when he won the national popular vote by 1 percent -- network exit polls showed that Gore had a 5-4 approval rating. After the furious Florida recount/court battle, his negatives went up to 52 percent in the Gallup Poll. Republicans were mad at him for contesting the election, Democrats and Independents were disappointed that he ultimately lost.

Polls showed that he was wise to skip a 2004 rematch with President Bush. But this year, Gore has been back in the limelight projecting a better image. His documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," won the Academy Award, his "Live Earth" benefit concert brought his signature issue of the environment back to the fore and the setbacks of the Bush administration's second term have made more than a few people wonder what might have been. And Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize, or at least part of it.

His approval ratings in the August Gallup Poll were back up to 5-4 positive, now that he has been in a nonpartisan "elder statesman" mode. However, the old negatives could come back if he actually re-entered the campaign.

Whatever Gore's inner thoughts, he missed the filing deadline for the New Hampshire primary on Nov. 2, so we'll see if he gets in by the time of the (ahem) Florida primary in late January. If he chooses not to run again, he may wait for a split of the primary vote and a draft.

Every four years, pundits speculate on the possibility that the primaries won't produce a winner and the old-fashioned "smoke-filled rooms" will pick the nominee. The only problem with this scenario is that the primary system is deliberately designed to choose the nominees by rank-and-file voters, not party leaders.

In the 18 nomination contests in both parties since the system was reformed in the early 1970s, the person who carried the most primaries won the nomination every time. The only seriously contested convention in the last generation was 1976, when President Gerald Ford narrowly defeated Ronald Reagan with 52 percent of the delegates. (And Ford had won more primaries than Reagan).

The last candidate to be nominated without winning a primary was Hubert Humphrey in 1968 -- and the riots that greeted his nomination sparked the movement to reform the system. The primaries have been simply decisive since 1972.

In the past, conventions have gone to multiple ballots when one or both of two conditions applied: a two-thirds vote was required to win; or a party was split by strong regional candidates. (At the 1924 Democratic Convention in New York, the big-city North supported Gov. Al Smith while the South opposed him. That convention lasted a record 15 days and took 103 ballots to pick the obscure John W. Davis.)

This year, many states are having their earliest primaries ever in a mad scramble for influence. Roughly half of the nation will have voted by Feb. 5 in what Michael Barone calls the "Mardi Gras" primary. That factor tends to help the candidates in either party who are the most well known and have the most resources.

For the Democrats to have a brokered convention, Clinton, Obama and Edwards would have to each keep getting only 25 percent to 30 percent of the vote in each primary all the way through June. That's just not likely given Clinton's name recognition and huge bankroll.

In the New Republic, John Judis recently argued that the GOP was more likely to have a brokered convention and he is almost certainly right. The Republicans could split the early contests between a Northeasterner like Rudy Giuliani and a Southerner like Fred Thompson, but sooner or later, voters in the Midwestern and Western primaries would likely swing the nod toward either man. As stated before, the primary system is designed to produce a winner before the conventions.

Someday, a set of freak events will cause the primary system to fail to pick a nominee -- just as the 2000 election marked the first time since 1888 that the candidate who carried the national popular vote didn't also win a majority in the Electoral College. But the guess here is that the front-loading of so many primaries, combined with well-known candidates like Clinton, Giuliani and John McCain, means that 2008 won't be the year.

As New Yorkers have observed in her two Senate races, Clinton has run a well-organized, disciplined, mistake-free campaign, making her the person to beat in the Democratic field. Most white feminists will likely vote for her, as will a fair amount of middle-aged white males. If she holds onto the majority of black voters that the Gallup Poll shows her currently winning, the campaign could be over by Feb. 5 when big states like New York and California vote.

But Obama is so dangerous precisely because he threatens her grip on the black vote. The latest Gallup Poll gives Clinton a 2-1 lead among both white and black voters, largely due to her husband's popularity among black Democrats. To make a serious run, Obama will have to get roughly 85 percent of his fellow African-Americans, something he is not close to doing yet. But if after seeing him in debates and on television ads, black voters swing sharply to him by the South Carolina and Florida primaries in January, he'll have a decent shot at pulling the upset.

Blacks constitute about one-fourth of all Democratic primary voters and are a majority of Democrats in Southern states like Alabama, South Carolina and Mississippi. Over the last 20 years, black candidates have won contested Democratic primaries for president, governor or U.S. senator in Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

With the exception of New York and Texas, a unified black vote could make Obama the favorite in all those states and guarantee at least a respectable second-place finish. It's ironic that Obama, the most popular Democratic black candidate thus far with white voters, is behind because he's lagging in the black community!

A black bloc vote for Obama, combined with his already strong support among white liberals, would likely give him plurality victories in the liberal states of the Northern tier (e.g., New England, Illinois and Michigan) and in most of the South. Under such a scenario, the nomination would be decided by big states such as California, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Florida.

If either Edwards or Richardson is going to make a charge, he will have to do so in Iowa and then use the "slingshot momentum" in New Hampshire and beyond. In 2004, Edwards finished a close second to John Kerry in Iowa, and he'll need to duplicate that if he is to have any chance in 2008.

Edwards is currently running even with Clinton in Iowa, while Richardson is coming up into double-digits there. Richardson will also seek to break through in the Hispanic and labor-dominated Nevada caucuses that are scheduled just after Iowa.

If either Edwards or Richardson can win Iowa, he then will undoubtedly try to use the potent "electability" argument against Clinton and wear her down over the long haul. Basically, the strategy of these two men is to hope Obama takes the black vote away from Clinton and hope they win the white male vote, thus setting up a legitimate three-way race. It's a long shot, but it's also all they have at the moment.

In contrast to the "marathon" strategies of her opponents, Clinton will be looking for a quick knockout in January. While she can't lose the nomination in Iowa, she could all but wrap it up there. With all her resources, she can afford a loss in Iowa and fight on.

Since the primary system was reformed in 1972, no candidate who has won both Iowa and New Hampshire has been denied the nomination in either party. If Clinton holds on to both of the first two states, the only person who can stop her is herself.

Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are notoriously volatile -- in 2004, Howard Dean led every poll until the final weekend -- so polls taken in the fall of 2007 are of dubious value. Watch the late-breaking surveys in early January to see if any of the also-rans like Joe Biden or Chris Dodd are picking up strength.

While Republicans detest Clinton and Independents have their doubts, the bulk of the Democratic delegates will be chosen by registered Democrats because only a few states have "open" primaries. Among Democrats, she has a 4-1 positive rating. That ratio is not quite as good as Obama's or Edwards', but it should be good enough to win more than a few Democratic primaries.

The pattern for the Democratic campaign has largely been set: Clinton is counting on women, labor and the party "regulars," including a fair amount of blacks; Obama hopes to revive Jackson's "rainbow" of blacks, Hispanics and white liberals; and Edwards and Richardson are hoping populist economic themes can help propel them to victory in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The way the schedule is front-loaded, we could know the nominees of both parties at the earliest date ever in 2008.

Patrick Reddy is a Democratic consultant in California.

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