Thursday, March 6, 2008 | In a column for exactly one year ago I hailed Barack Obama — who was then trailing Hillary Clinton by a dozen points — as a “phenomenon” and said the Democratic nomination was his to lose. Following Tuesday’s big votes in Ohio and Texas, he hasn’t yet lost it, but Clinton, a tough fighter, is neck and neck.

The black man vs. the woman marks an historical election for us, and it is only right that they keep us tantalized until the Denver convention in August. But before I am too praised for my Obama perspicacity of a year ago, I should add that in the same column I wrote that John McCain “had crucified himself on the Iraq war as thoroughly as George W. Bush.”

McCain sewed up the Republican nomination Tuesday.

That’s politics, up today, down tomorrow; bankrupt, as McCain’s campaign was last summer and now filling up with gold. It is the virtue of our primary system, as daunting, colorful and mystifying as any vote system anywhere. Clinton narrowly won the Texas primary vote, though Obama won nearly as many primary delegates and, once the caucus votes are counted, may have won more total Texas delegates than Clinton, maintaining his roughly 100-delegate lead in the overall count.

As for the Republicans, McCain won the nomination because no conservative was able to unite the party — a weakness that was exposed by Tuesday’s turnouts: McCain won 707,000 Texas votes compared with Clinton’s 1.4 million. McCain won 636,000 Ohio votes compared with Clinton’s 1.2 million. She doubled him in both states.

A second McCain weakness heading into November is his connection to the vastly unpopular Bush and his war in Iraq. It’s not only Democrats who don’t like Bush’s war, but a large swath of Republican voters stretching from libertarians to foreign policy realists to mainstreamers like the late Bill Buckley. Bush’s war is popular only among evangelists and neo-cons, and they aren’t enough to win a national election.

McCain’s presidential aspirations were, ironically, saved by Bush, who last year sent more troops to Iraq in an attempt to stop the chaos. As fewer Americans (though just as many Iraqis) were killed, some newspapers (including the local one), dispatched Iraq to the back pages, making it the first of our wars to be removed from the headlines.

There are other firsts with this war, including Bush’s decision to pay for it with tax cuts instead of increases. When Iraq dropped behind tax cuts and immigration in importance to Republicans, McCain was resuscitated. The GOP mainstream was never going to go for Romney or Huckabee, and when Giuliani failed to campaign seriously, McCain was in.

He is right to claim he will win or lose the presidency on Iraq, for if the war no longer is dominant for some Republicans, it remains a very big issue for most of us. Little in our recent history has had such a devastating impact on American power, alliances, reputation, finances and self-respect, and Democrats are right to campaign for ending a conflict that is only prolonged by our presence.

McCain argues — as he has argued about Vietnam — that Iraq can be “won,” and that the Democrats would “lose” it, but such statements trivialize language. By “winning,” McCain means permanent occupation and nation-building (traditionally rejected by conservatives). When he writes in Foreign Affairs that America should “energize and expand our post-conflict reconstruction capabilities,” he signs on to Bush’s failed policies and ignores the war’s effect on markets, deficits, the dollar and oil prices.

The Arizonan is an interesting character, down-to-earth with a temper and tendency to speak his mind. He is on much better terms with the press, as I can testify to personally, than Bush. As senator, he’s done some good things, which makes it too bad he’s now apologizing for much of his record in order to court conservatives.

The man is a packet of contradictions. He now supports Bush’s tax cuts (he voted twice against them) and never mentions his past support for campaign and immigration reform — two measures he championed. He has abandoned his former criticism of corporate power and lobbyists. He might win a large part of the Hispanic vote in November (perhaps even a majority against Obama) by supporting immigration reform, but such reform is anathema to conservatives. And his defense of a long Iraq occupation and the Bush tax cuts is inconsistent with his calls for balanced budgets.

If McCain is right that his candidacy turns on Iraq, it seems better that the November contest should be with Obama, whose record on Iraq is less ambiguous than Clinton’s.

Following Tuesday’s vote, it looks like neither Obama nor Clinton will go to Denver with a majority of delegates, and the Democratic nominee will be chosen by un-pledged super-delegates. Their job will be to go with the candidate who has the better chance of defeating McCain, which has to be the priority.

Prior to Tuesday, that candidate seemed to be Obama, who’d won a dozen consecutive state contests against Clinton and whom the polls showed had fewer negatives and ran better against McCain.

Following Tuesday, things are not so clear. In Texas and Ohio, Clinton won voters who Obama had been winning — particularly white men. Her decisive victory in Ohio is particularly impressive, for that is the state that gave the election to Bush in 2004 and that Democrats need to win in November.

If Clinton continues to show such strength — and Pennsylvania, the next big test, has similarities to Ohio — the job for the super-delegates becomes more difficult. If Democrats decide to bring the Florida and Michigan votes back into the picture — Clinton won both states though the totals were not counted because of intra-party disputes — she could still be the candidate in November.

If she keeps showing the strength she showed Tuesday, she could beat McCain.

James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Visit his website here. Submit a letter to the editor here.

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