Ten Best: Critical moments in the Democratic race

by Jordan Green

Obama carries Iowa caucuses

The conventional wisdom espoused by most media outlets held that by the time North Carolina’s May 6 primary rolled around, the Democratic nomination for president would have long since been decided. Boy, were they wrong. At every turn in which either Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. Hillary Clinton might have pulled away from their respective opponent, circumstances have conspired to keep the contest in play. Remember that back in November and December, Clinton was the presumptive frontrunner, and then Obama carried 38 percent of the Iowa caucuses, while Clinton placed third behind North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, with 29 percent.

Clinton wins New Hampshire primary

The pundits expected Obama’s good fortune in Iowa to carry over to the first primary in New Hampshire, but in a seminal moment, Clinton underwent what appeared to be a moment of involuntary emotion on Jan. 7 that encapsulated the exhaustion of the campaign, along with her personal trials and vision for the country. “You know I have so many opportunities from this country, and I just don’t want us to fall backward, you know?” she said. “This is very personal for me. It’s not just political; it’s not just public. I see what’s happening, and we have to reverse it. And some people think elections are a game. They think it’s like who’s up or who’s down. It’s about our country. It’s about our kids’ futures. And it’s really about all of us together.” Clinton ended up besting Obama by 2.6 percentage points, but they each took nine delegates.

Super Tuesday primaries

In January, Obama had trounced Clinton in South Carolina after Bill Clinton dismissively compared Obama’s candidacy to that of Jesse Jackson, while Clinton had carried Nevada. Voters in Michigan had favored Clinton by a wide margin, and Obama did not appear on the ballot in Michigan. The Democratic National Committee is refusing to count delegates from Florida and Michigan, as punishment for moving their primaries up on the election calendar. In the 24 “Super Tuesday” primaries on Feb. 5, Obama won 13 states, while Clinton took nine states and American Samoa. Clinton won the most delegates with 802, while Obama took 776. It first became apparent that the Democratic primaries would be a protracted struggle.

Super delegates begin drift towards Obama

With Obama and Clinton locked in a tight race, about 80 super delegates, which comprise about 20 percent of delegate pool at the nominating convention, suddenly became potential kingmakers. The super delegates’ gradual commitment has turned into something of a dance with the electorate, with governors, senators and party activists trying to anticipate the popular will in their respective states and nudge the race towards whatever candidate seems the most viable. These Democratic party bosses would like nothing more than for a clear favorite to emerge. Clinton currently enjoys a slight lead in super delegates, with 303 yet to commit. The party establishment began to shift towards Obama in early February, with Massachusetts Sens. John Kerry and Edward Kennedy committing.

Clinton carries Ohio and Texas

If Clinton found her soul in New Hampshire, she seemed to find her theme in Ohio and Texas. Typically, in general elections, as goes Ohio so goes the nation. Clinton won both states. In Ohio, she enjoyed strong returns in Appalachia and carried virtually every county except those encompassing the states three largest cities – Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland – and Dayton. In Texas, she carried San Antonio and wide swaths of rural and semi-urban areas, leaving islands of Obama strongholds around the state capital of Austin and the central hill country, along with the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth areas. Texas cinched Clinton’s appeal with Hispanics, and Ohio established her credibility in struggling, post-industrial working-class, white redoubts. The latter phenomenon would be reprised in Pennsylvania.

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright damns America

Just when it seemed that Obama was on a roll to secure the nomination, controversial statements by his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, exploded into the public arena, courtesy of a March 13 ABC News broadcast. One snippet from a 2003 sermon by Wright in particular seemed to play on continuous loop: “The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, God damn America, that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.”

Obama makes race speech

Obama responded only five days later with a speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia that many hailed as a masterful piece of oratory. The candidate called on Americans to engage with the prickly matter of race and – evoking King and Lincoln – move towards perfecting the American promise of democracy. “The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have not yet made perfect,” he said. “And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care or education or the need to find good jobs for every American.”

Gov. Bill Richardson and Robert Reich endorse Obama

The Democratic leadership has taken note of the rapturous crowds that greet Obama and the candidate’s intimate way of communicating with the flock. Two prominent former members of the Clinton administration have cast their lot with Obama. First came New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who served as energy secretary under Clinton. Then former Clinton labor secretary Robert Reich wrote in an April 18 blog post: “My avoidance of offering a formal endorsement until now has also been affected by the pull of old friendships and my reluctance as a teacher and commentator to be openly partisan. But my conscience won’t let me be silent any longer…. Although Hillary Clinton has offered solid and sensible policy proposals, Obama’s strike me as even more so.” Reich trumpeted Obama’s proposals on Social Security, healthcare and housing.

Obama makes “bitter” comment

In early April, comments by Obama himself would leave more lasting wounds than those of his former pastor. An April 11 post on “The Huffington Post” blog retailed comments the candidate made at a private fundraiser in San Francisco five days earlier. “The truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there’s not evidence of that in their daily lives,” he said. “You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Clinton wins Pennsylvania primary

Clinton hit hard in a debate six days before the Pennsylvania primary, declaring, “I am the granddaughter of a factory worker from Scranton who went to work in the Scranton lace mills when he was 11 years old. Worked his entire life there…. I don’t believe that my grandfather or my father or the many people whom I have had the privilege of knowing and meeting across Pennsylvania over many years cling to religion when Washington is not listening to them.” When the votes were counted, Obama did well in metropolitan Philadelphia, in the state capital of Harrisburg and in Centre County, where Penn State University is located; Clinton carried the rest of the state, including Pittsburgh. Looking forward, Obama remains in the lead with 1,721 delegates to Clinton’s 1,579, according to the latest count. A candidate needs 2,025 to secure the nomination. There are 230 super delegates who remain uncommitted, and contests left in six states and two territories. North Carolina’s primary, with 115 delegates, is the largest.