The punditocracy has spoken.
If Hillary Rodham Clinton loses today's Democratic primary in Pennsylvania, she's finished. Even if she beats Barack Obama by only a few percentage points, it's probably the end of this interminable presidential primary.
But let's step back from the conventional wisdom.
Is it so silly to expect that Obama — all but anointed as the inevitable nominee, campaigning full throttle and outspending Clinton more than 2-to-1 in Pennsylvania — should win a primary in a crucial swing state? Is it naive to think that the likely Democratic nominee should not struggle to win over Democrats in big states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida?
Obama is beating Clinton in states won, pledged delegates, popular vote and fundraising, and he remains the overwhelming favorite for the nomination, regardless of what happens in Pennsylvania today. But the fact remains that the Illinois senator has been unable to close the deal, and the Keystone state could renew questions about Obama's strength in November.
"Clearly it's going to be awfully hard for him to win some of those big states that Hillary Clinton's won,'' said Clinton supporter and former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman, noting Obama's difficulty in winning over working-class white voters. "After you've spent I don't know how many tens of million of dollars, you've had 21 debates, and you've targeted those voters and aren't winning them, what does it say about your chances in November?"
For all the buzz about Obama's success in contest after contest, this has not been a blowout. It's worth remembering that if Democrats awarded delegates the way Republicans do — with winner-take-all contests, instead of proportionally by votes — Clinton would be comfortably ahead in delegates, not Obama.
Nobody doubts Obama's ability to win Democratic states like California or New York, after losing those primaries.
The fact remains, though, that Clinton at this point looks stronger in the states that make the biggest difference in who wins and loses the White House: Ohio, whose primary she won by 10 points; Pennsylvania, where the average of recent polls shows her leading by about 6 points; and Florida, whose officially meaningless primary she won by 17 percentage points.
Florida is a trickier question, as neither candidate campaigned in the state. But show me a candidate struggling to win over Hispanic voters and Jewish voters, as Obama has, and I see someone with dubious prospects in the Sunshine State.
Obama's broader problem is winning over downscale white voters, the people who helped Al Gore win the popular vote in 2000 but then went with George W. Bush four years later.
"Historically, the people that are most likely to be swing voters are the kinds of voters among whom Sen. Obama's had his greatest problems,'' Geoff Garin, Clinton's chief strategist, said Monday. "In order for a Democrat to win, he or she has to be able to do well with those kinds of noncollege-educated voters who feel very comfortable moving from one side to the other."
The Clinton team, of course, is running out of arguments to win over uncommitted superdelegates who will ultimately decide the nomination. She is left with little besides raising doubts about Obama's electability.
"I think the fact that we've won twice as many states, more delegates and more votes from a diverse coalition of voters, speaks to Obama's appeal,'' Obama spokesman Bill Burton said. "When you constantly use political tactics to try to move the goal posts in this contest, you shouldn't wonder why it is you have a credibility problem with the American people."
It's mathematically impossible for Clinton to catch up to Obama in pledged delegates, and anything but a huge win in Pennsylvania will make it hard to catch up to Obama in popular votes cast. But that's not stopping the Clinton campaign from trying to control expectations.
"If Sen. Obama can't win a big swing state with that enormous spending advantage, just what will it take for him to win a large swing state?" Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson said Monday, estimating Obama is outspending Clinton 3-to-1 in Pennsylvania. "If he does not win, it will again raise very serious questions among voters and superdelegates."
Obama has already cut into Clinton's double-digit lead in Pennsylvania and could well upset her today. But even if he doesn't come especially close, Tampa-based Democratic consultant Bernie Campbell doubts many undecided superdelegates will flock to Clinton.
"The Clintons have had machinery that's gone back a long time in Pennsylvania, and the superdelegates are going to be considering lots of factors, including why he was outspending her in Pennsylvania,'' said Campbell, who is uncommitted. "Superdelegates are also going to look at why is Obama raising $45-million in a month, and why is she $10-million in debt, because they know we're going to have to raise some money in the general election."
Clinton could be finally knocked to the mat today. Or she could buy a few more weeks to make her case and hope for a serious Obama stumble. Either way, she has already proved Obama is not nearly as daunting as many observers had seen.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or