WASHINGTON — How Barack Obama navigates the next 10 days could be crucial in determining whether he can win the White House.
The Illinois senator is poised to clinch the presidential nomination within days; perhaps as early as Tuesday night in St. Paul, Minn., when he celebrates the final returns from South Dakota and Montana. It's been a long, bruising race, but Obama would be wise to control the smugness reflex he lets slip out periodically.
In victory, he can't discount the wounds of legions of ardent Hillary Rodham Clinton supporters he will need in November.
Many in the Clinton camp were furious with the way the national Democratic Party's rules committee settled Florida's and Michigan's problematic primaries on Saturday — by seating all of the delegates, but giving them only half a vote.
"The Democrats are throwing the election away for what? An inadequate black male who would not have been running had it not been a white woman that was running for president!" New Yorker Harriet Christian screamed after being ejected from the meeting room. "They think we won't turn and vote for McCain? Well, I got news for all of you — McCain will be the next president of the United States!"
It's easy to dismiss someone like that as an unhinged zealot who represents a small subset of voters. But it would be political suicide for Obama not to recognize and deal with the profound anger and deep wounds of so many voters invested in Clinton's candidacy, especially older white women.
"He has underestimated the passion that Hillary's people have, and I think the whole United States of America has underestimated the horror of the sexism we've seen over the last several months," said Clinton supporter B.J. Star, 59, an attorney in Dunedin who nonetheless thinks women will unite behind Obama.
Obama has to reach out to the voters who ignored the caricature of Clinton as a ruthless, self-entitled candidate. These voters saw a brilliant, courageous woman fighting on and on amid a steady barrage of antagonistic media coverage, running against a rookie pol who only a few years ago was little more than a failed congressional candidate from Chicago.
A nationwide poll May 21-25 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that almost half of the white women surveyed now have a negative view of Obama, up from just over a third in February.
"When you've had a race go on this long, you're going to have some hurt feelings," said senior Obama adviser Anita Dunn. "We will be reaching out to those people, and we have five months to make our case."
The way Clinton handles defeat will be crucial to Obama's ability to unite the party. If she waits and waits before conceding or follows through on adviser Harold Ickes' threat on Saturday to challenge the way Obama received delegates from Michigan despite his name not being on the ballot, she could cost Democrats the White House and seal her legacy as a spoiler.
Clinton campaign staffers were noncommittal about her plans, but Ickes sounded more conciliatory about Michigan on Meet the Press on Sunday.
"Some good things came out of (Saturday). One, they were seated. Two, they will be represented at our convention. Three, the 600,000 voters in Michigan and the 1.7-million in Florida will have a voice at our convention,'' Ickes said.
State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, made an impassioned case on behalf of the Clinton campaign to give Florida delegates full voting strength rather than half-votes, but said she agreed that a Clinton challenge now could damage the party heading into November.
"Whichever one has lost, how they react will send a strong message to their supporters," Joyner said. "If he wins, she's got to step into the fold and support him strongly because a lot of her supporters are going to look to her for leadership."
State Democratic chairwoman Karen Thurman expressed confidence on Sunday that the party would unify, and spoke wistfully about an Obama-Clinton ticket.
"I still think they should band together," Thurman said. "They're both so historic and inspiring — the first woman and the first African-American — and it almost seems like they owe it to each other."
Obama can't wait forever on Clinton to concede gracefully before turning his full attention to the general election. It's no accident he'll be in Minnesota Tuesday night. The swing state is where Republicans hold their nominating convention in September.
Still, he has to walk a delicate line between declaring victory and showing Clinton the respect she has earned. After all, he's not roaring full steam into the general election.
He lost a majority of the Democratic contests since March, including Puerto Rico on Sunday, and this weekend he resigned from his longtime church amid more controversy.
Still, Obama is ready at last to move on to the general election, but like it or not he won't be through with the Clinton factor any time soon. He still has a lot of work to do to recover from the wounds from the primary, and he will need all the help he can get from Clinton.
Adam C. Smith can be reached