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Thursday, May 8, 2008 | Two years after the primary season started, the Democrats still don’t have a nominee. We might have had one Tuesday night, except that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton split the Indiana-North Carolina vote. Had either won both states, things would be clearer. As it is, still no decision.

They stagger on like punch-drunk fighters, clinching, sweating, bleeding, refusing to go down. No TKOs in this fight, they will go on until one of them drops. Like the hockey game Sunday night with endless overtimes, players wobbly and spectators woozy, there seems no end in sight.

It is exhilarating. Democracy deserves a good fight. No more elections decided, 5-4, by judges who’ve never been in the arena. Voters will decide who wins this fight and they are enjoying it so much they won’t let it stop.

They came close to stopping it Tuesday. An Obama victory in both states would have showed Clinton that victory was hopeless. A Clinton victory, coming on the heels of wins in Ohio and Pennsylvania, would have been a signal to the super-delegates that Obama could not win the states he needs to win in November.

The split decision means the fight goes on another month, to five more states and Puerto Rico with a total of 274 more delegates, reaching for the magic number of 2,025 (or 2,209 if Michigan and Florida are included). At present Obama has 1,584 pledged delegates and 1,840 when super-delegates who have endorsed him are included, according to the Associated Press. That leaves the contest in the hands of the 267 uncommitted supers.

Not for a second do voters think this battle is bad for the party. They are coming out in record numbers to root on the fighters, which bodes well for Democrats in November. After Tuesday, it bodes still better. For the first time, Clinton indicated she suspects time is running out; she showed signs she would, when the time comes, throw all her support to Obama.

She has run a good campaign. Burdened by her husband, who does not look or sound healthy, she has shown grit, stamina, passion and intelligence. She entered the primary battles last year thinking she would be the easy winner, unprepared for the upstart from Illinois. She grew stronger as Obama stumbled, and it seemed that, because of the super-delegates, she might bring him down in the last rounds.

He was winning in the South, but Republicans always win there in November. She was winning the states around the Great Lakes that Democrats have to win. Beyond that, there was the curious case of Michigan and Florida, two big states where Clinton had 20-point leads in the polls, but whose delegates were excluded from the party count because of unapproved primary elections.

Was Florida again to be at the center of a major election injustice?

There was no question that had those two primaries been properly held and counted, Clinton would have the delegate lead, and the claim on the supers.

It must be an exciting time to be a super-delegate. They are the latest invention in our test-tube, delegate-elector, indirect-suffrage democracy, a post-1972 compromise between backroom deals and grassroots vote. The grassroots delegates still get most of the convention votes, but the 795 supers are there to make sure the grassroots doesn’t deliver another lamb to the slaughter, as it did with George McGovern in 1972.

A few months ago, hardly anyone knew of the supers. Today, they are the shooting stars of the political universe, all eyes fixed on them before they disappear back into obscurity. Because this primary fight is so close, they will anoint the winner. If Clinton does well in the last six contests, as expected, the supers could still put her over the top.

Would they do it?

No, not after Tuesday.

Clinton’s hope has been to show the supers she is the better choice in November. With wins in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana and with the damage done to Obama by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, she has a case. Recent polls show she runs equal to or better than Obama against John McCain. She already leads Obama in committed super-delegates, and her hope was that after Tuesday she would rally more of the uncommitted.

Before Tuesday, it was possible. The supers’ “pledges” are written in sand. At the convention, August in Denver, they are free to vote their choice, and if it were clear Clinton was the stronger candidate, they could all back her if they wanted. That’s why they were invented: To make sure the party nominates the strongest possible candidate.

After Tuesday, it’s harder for Clinton to make that case. Obama won 17 more delegates than she in North Carolina (a state he is unlikely to win in November), while her narrow victory in Indiana produced only four more delegates than Obama. He added a net 12 pledged delegates to his total. Moreover, the near tie in Indiana in the wake of the Rev. Wright fiasco (which probably cost him the win), was not as bad as expected.

Party leaders meet May 31 to decide how to let Michigan and Florida delegates back into the game, though any formula they come up with is not likely to give Clinton enough advantage to make a difference.

I’ve said from the beginning of this campaign that Obama is a phenomenon. With his unique background and message of unity, he has come along at the right time to patch the wounds of a nation reeling under the failures of a discredited administration. He will do fine against McCain, whose message sounds tired and feeble. Despite the split decision, Obama sewed up the nomination Tuesday.

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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