Obama Sweeps, Huckabee Hangs On

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Paul J. Richards / AFP / Getty

Barack Obama speaks Saturday at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Richmond, Virginia.

Pundits may well marvel that, for once, participants in Tuesday's D.C., Maryland and Virginia Democratic Potomac Primaries will be casting votes that "actually matter," but yesterday's results among Republicans show that even if a party's nomination is all sewn up, votes can still matter quite a lot. John McCain's losses in Kansas and Louisiana — and his narrow win in Washington State — suggest that, at the very least, the Republican Party will not be able to begin preparing for the general election as soon as leaders would like. At worst, Mike Huckabee's insistence on staying in the race undermines McCain's precarious status as a consensus conservative candidate. The longer that anyone-but-McCain voters have an option in the primary voting booth, the less likely they will be to turn out to vote in the general at all.

Huckabee has little chance of actually winning the nomination. He would have to win each one of the next primary contests with better than 50% of the vote just to keep McCain short of the 1,191 delegates needed to nab the G.O.P. nod. And even then, it is unlikely that a brokered convention would work out in his favor. Remember, the only Republican whom traditional conservative leaders distrust more than McCain is Mike Huckabee. (This distrust might stem from Huckabee's independence from traditional conservative organizations; the Club for Growth's opprobrium means little to his loose coalition of homeschoolers, economic populists, evangelicals and socially moderate, young Christians.) Huckabee's best hope — as he admitted in a speech on Saturday — is for divine intervention: "I know the pundits, and I know what they say: The math doesn't work out... Well, I didn't major in math, I majored in miracles. And I still believe in those, too." Unfortunately, miracles are not yet an approved nomination vehicle. (This might change should, for instance, Huckabee accept the consolation prize of party chair.)

Huckabee's miracle would have to be more than an electoral version of loaves and fishes. It would require him to become a completely different candidate. Preferably Mitt Romney. Romney, for all his bland disingenuousness, worked the hardest of any of the final front-runners to pander equally to all segments of the modern Republican Party. Huckabee and McCain have both hesitated to make promises that would go against what they see as their core constituencies. Huckabee refuses to soften on his liberal spending policies in order to appease pro-business Republicans; McCain refuses to moderate the thumb-in-the-eye rhetoric that's made him so popular with, well, McCain.

Dissension among Republicans runs so deep, about the only thing that could bring them together is Hillary Clinton; the mainstream media's myopic focus on the Democratic race might, in other cycles, be frustrating to Republicans — this year, however, the choice of the Democratic nominee might well decide the fate of the entire election. Some Republicans recognize this; some are actively trying to keep the focus on the Democrats as a ploy to unite a fractured party. On Thursday, for instance, Rush Limbaugh pledged to raise money for a struggling Hillary campaign: "What if she's not the nominee? We've got to make sure she's the nominee if the Republican Party is to be unified. What more loyal thing could I do than to run a fund raiser for Mrs. Clinton?" Funny because it's true.

Conservative pundits and columnists are working rapidly to demonize Barack Hussein Obama. Once McCain's place at the top of the ticket became all but inevitable, many right-wing talk-show hosts and bloggers began to paper over intraparty differences by invoking the specter of "Clinton OR Obama." But this is one area in which Clinton's invocation of "thirty-five years in the public eye" really does make a difference; even with the head start of that funny name, the G.O.P. media machine would have to go into double-overdrive to rouse the kind of rancor against Obama that's currently aimed at Hillary Clinton.

Obama's recent successes, in fact, don't just speak to his popularity as a Democratic candidate. A close look at his victories show a fundamental shift not just in who's winning but in who is voting for the winner. Obama's victory in Louisiana could be, if one were especially cynical, written off as success with "black voters." But what of Nebraska, just to take one example? Obama won the state 68 to 32; he won Nebraska's second congressional district 77 to 23. And while it's true that this district (my home district, by the way) encompasses the University of Nebraska and the capital (pointy-headed academics and whatnot), it's also 80% white, with a mean household income of about $50,000. These are not latte liberals. They are just barely caffeinated. What's more, 1,500 of the 10,000 who voted in just Lincoln registered that same day.

This enthusiasm and broad support is why the Hillary campaign has forsaken former President Clinton's snipes suggesting an identity-candidate equivalency between Obama and Jesse Jackson. In their press releases on the Saturday caucus results, Clinton flacks pointed out that Obama won by virtue of higher spending and better organization. Well, yes — that's how elections are typically won. If that dynamic holds, along with the Obama campaign's ability to bring new voters into the process, Obama seems well positioned to make good on the poll-test argument that he stacks up better against a McCain candidacy.

Even if McCain was by temperament a coalition-builder, unifying the G.O.P. would be less of a challenge in the fall than simply getting them out of the house. A dispirited Republican electorate might vote out of anger against Hillary, but they won't vote out of enthusiasm for McCain. And Obama voters will be nothing if not enthusiastic. For all the strengths he brings to a November election — and his independence from the G.O.P. base is one of them — in this strange convergence of events, it now seems like the triumph of a Hillary-aligned Democratic establishment in the backrooms of the Denver convention isn't just Clinton's best hope at gaining the nomination, it's McCain's best hope at winning the general.