The man behind the curtain

As voters learn more about Obama, the less they like him

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No sooner had Sen. Hillary Clinton won a near landslide victory in the Pennsylvania primary than major media figures were renewing their calls for her to drop out of the race. But there is a whiff of panic about them now.

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio (jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1476).

In an editorial Wednesday, The New York Times called Mrs. Clinton's 9.2-percentage-point victory in the nation's sixth largest state "inconclusive," and described the campaign that preceded it as "even meaner, more vacuous, more desperate and more filled with pandering than the mean, vacuous, desperate, pander-filled contests that preceded it."

Mrs. Clinton is mostly responsible for the negative tone of the campaign, according to the Times, which had endorsed her in the New York primary. She should stop criticizing Sen. Barack Obama: "If she is ever to have a hope of persuading [superdelegates] to come back to her side, let alone win over the larger body of voters, she has to call off the dogs," the Times said.

Hmm. Fifty-five percent seems like "the larger body of voters." The Clinton campaign reported she raked in nearly $10 million in contributions over the Internet in the 24 hours following her Pennsylvania win. That suggests some Democrats aren't put off by her criticisms of Mr. Obama.

"None of the voters want this race to end," said pollster Frank Luntz. "The people who want the race to end are the pundits."

It would seem to be against the professional interest of journalists to pine for a premature end to the most exciting Democratic race since 1980. But many think it more important to protect Barack Obama from scrutiny than to follow a good story. Like the Wizard of Oz, they don't want you to peer behind the curtain lest you be unimpressed by what you see. The longer the contest goes on, the higher the curtain is raised.

Mr. Obama is hiding from a girl. That's the Clinton spin on his decision to back out of a debate before the primaries in Indiana and North Carolina.

As a matter of political tactics, his decision is sound. Mr. Obama is the front runner. He's got nothing to gain from another debate. And -- though it's unlikely he'll ever again be as awful as he was in the Philadelphia debate on April 16 -- potentially much to lose. He doesn't want to answer any more questions about his relationship with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, or with former Weatherman terrorist Bill Ayers (and most journalists don't want to ask them). But his refusal to debate supports Mrs. Clinton's insinuation he doesn't have what it takes to be president.

Those pundits who haven't declared Mrs. Clinton's campaign hopeless say she faces a must-win primary in Indiana May 6. That's true.

But Mr. Obama also faces a must-win primary that day in North Carolina. If he does as poorly among blue-collar whites there as he did in Pennsylvania, doubts about his viability as a general election candidate will be intensified.

Mrs. Clinton clearly is the better general election candidate. A higher proportion of her supporters than of Obama supporters say they'll bolt if their candidate loses the nomination. (In exit polls in Pennsylvania, 15 percent of Clinton supporters said they'd vote for Sen. John McCain; 10 percent said they'd stay home. Ten percent of Obama supporters said they'd vote for Mr. McCain; 7 percent said they'd stay home.)

Disaffected Clinton supporters are more likely to mean what they say. They are unsettled by Mr. Obama's ties to a racist preacher, and are offended by his condescension towards rural whites. Obama supporters who are upset with Mrs. Clinton are upset mostly because she is an obstacle in the path of the Anointed One. That's easier to get over before it's time to vote in November.

In most current polls, Mr. Obama runs slightly better than does Mrs. Clinton in head-to-head matchups with Mr. McCain. But Mrs. Clinton runs more strongly in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida -- states Democrats must carry in order to win the election.

Mrs. Clinton is never going to be more unpopular than she is right now. Republicans have never liked her, and many Obama supporters are mad at her. But that antipathy is likely to fade if she is the nominee.

Mr. Obama, on the other hand, never will be more popular than he is right now. His press coverage has been hagiographic, and we didn't know much about him until recently. When he spoke about hope and change, we could imagine he would make the changes we were hoping for. But as we see more of the man behind the curtain, it's harder to sustain those illusions.



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