It's time for a damage assessment after last week's Democratic primary in Pennsylvania. The six-week slugfest brought out the worst in the candidates, coarsened the political debate and prolonged the increasingly divisive nomination fight between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, both of whom came out of Pennsylvania diminished.
Other than that, it was a healthy exercise in democracy.
Polls suggest that culture and race took a toll on Obama's candidacy, as did his own political blunders. The magic is gone, and Obama has morphed from the idealistic candidate of hope and change to the stumbling, defensive politician we saw in Pennsylvania. His weaknesses can no longer be denied.
As for Clinton, she got what she needed out of Pennsylvania — a decisive victory, a surge in campaign donations and reinforcement of her argument to superdelegates that Obama can't "close the deal'' with white Reagan Democrats whose votes could be crucial to a Democratic victory in November. However, Pennsylvania did little or nothing for her credibility problem. A majority of voters in national polls see her as dishonest and untrustworthy.
Many Democrats fear that the real winner in Pennsylvania was Republican John McCain, who spent last week visiting poor areas in the South and denouncing the North Carolina GOP for running a television ad linking Obama to the incendiary sermons of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
McCain is not likely to bump into Clinton on the high road. If she threw the kitchen sink at Obama in Ohio, Clinton threw the garbage can at him in Pennsylvania. It was too much for the New York Times, which endorsed her candidacy early on. In an editorial headlined "The Low Road to Victory'' the day after the Pennsylvania vote, the newspaper said Clinton "is mostly responsible'' for the campaign's nastiness and urged her to tone it down before she ruins her party's prospects for retaking the White House.
The hand-wringing editorial lashed Clinton for being the first Democratic candidate to "wave the bloody shirt of 9/11'' in a television ad "torn right from Karl Rove's playbook.'' Evoking dark images of the Pearl Harbor attack, the Cuban missile crisis, the Cold War and Osama bin Laden, the ad suggested the world is too dangerous to entrust the presidency to an upstart like Obama.
Clinton, who voted to go to war in Iraq, made it clear that voters would not have to worry about her going wimpy on them if she becomes commander in chief. The morning of the primary, she told ABC News that if Iran attacked Israel on her presidential watch, "we would attack Iran. We would be able to totally obliterate them.''
In the final stretch of the campaign, Clinton is edging dangerously close to playing the race card. Her message to the uncommitted superdelegates who eventually will have to decide the nominee comes down to this — that for all his stardom, the huge crowds and his Midas touch in fundraising, Ohio and Pennsylvania show that Obama is not connecting with white, working-class voters, including Catholics. Indiana may be Obama's last chance to prove her wrong before the campaign moves west.
If you believe the Clintonistas, Obama is unelectable because too many gun-toting, churchgoing whites won't vote for a candidate — even a Harvard-educated black man — who comes across as an "elitist'' and embraces Wright as his spiritual adviser and whose wife has said this country is "just downright mean.''
Exit polls in Pennsylvania suggest that Obama's race could be an issue in the general election. Among the state's white Democratic voters, 16 percent said that race was a factor in their decision, and only 56 percent of those voters said they would vote for Obama against McCain. And fairly or not, Obama also could have the added problem of being seen as culturally out of touch with average Americans. (See his boneheaded remarks explaining to bunch of San Francisco donors that working-class whites "cling'' to their guns and religion because they are "bitter'' about their economic plight.)
Does Clinton, who keeps trying to change the rules of the game, want the nomination so badly that she would be willing to blow up the party to deny Obama the prize? Apparently so.
If Obama holds his lead in delegates and popular votes and then is denied the nomination by nervous party leaders, there would be hell to pay. It would rip the party apart like nothing since the Vietnam War and likely cost Democrats the White House.
Speaking of race, which has never been very far under the surface of this campaign, Bill Clinton keeps reminding us why he should avoid the subject. In an interview with a Philadelphia radio reporter, the former president said the Obama campaign "played the race card against me'' in South Carolina, mentioning some mysterious memos he has yet to produce.
A day later, Clinton was asked by another reporter to explain his radio remarks. "No, no, no,'' he said, wagging his finger at the reporter. "That's not what I said.'' Oh yes it was. It's on tape. When he thought the microphone was turned off, Clinton was caught saying, "I don't think I should take any (expletive) from anybody on that.''
After all, Clinton said, he has an office in Harlem.
Philip Gailey's e-mail address is email@example.com.