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Primary toll

So much for predictions that the Pennsylvania primary would be decisive in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination. It takes nothing away from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s impressive victory to observe that Tuesday’s primary turned out to be one more contest in a long war of attrition.

The unresolved rivalry between Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama undermines the efforts of Democratic Party strategists who expected the front-loading of the primary schedule to produce an early consensus nominee, as it did for the Republicans.

Obama remains the favorite -- he leads in delegates, states and the popular vote, despite Clinton’s insistence Wednesday that she would be ahead if Florida and Michigan were counted (they shouldn’t be). There seems little chance that Clinton will overtake him during the remaining primaries, but she is right to argue to the party in general and superdelegates in particular that her 10-point edge in Pennsylvania proves that Obama hasn’t “closed the deal” with key Democratic constituencies.

The protracted contest between Clinton and Obama has not brought out the best in either. As Pennsylvania wound toward election day, the quality of the campaign descended and coverage turned to gaffes and attacks -- away from the high-minded electioneering evident in earlier states.

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The Democratic race only seems interminable; there will be a winner, and he or she will reconcile with the loser and call for party unity. If Republicans can withstand the abrupt alliance of Sen. John McCain and Mitt Romney, why shouldn’t Democrats be united by an enthusiastic endorsement of Clinton by Obama, or vice versa? After all, for all the attacks, the two Democrats aren’t far apart on policy.

And yet the unity coalition that just weeks ago animated so many Democrats now is showing the wear of this long campaign. In Pennsylvania, Clinton received strong support from whites -- especially white women -- while Obama excelled among African Americans and young voters; however much we might wish for the demise of identity politics, we’re not there yet. And as those forces work their effect on the campaign, resentments are solidifying: In exit-poll interviews, 16% of Obama supporters and 26% of Clinton backers said they would abandon the party in November if their candidate does not secure the nomination.

Remaining contests in Indiana and North Carolina will help to clarify whether Clinton was engaging in victory-party hyperbole when she boasted that “the tide is turning” in her favor. Even if it isn’t, Obama supporters will have to learn the virtue of patience.


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