Democrats: deadlock Republicans: dominance

Democrats’ struggle may become more divisive, while Republicans can coalesce support around McCain.

THIS has been an election of turning points.

The first race in Iowa was a big brush-off for former first lady Hillary Clinton. It brought stunning affirmation for Illinois Senator Barack Obama. But New Hampshire turned the tables around for her, dashing any hopes Mr Obama had of clinching the Democratic presidential nomination without a bitter fight.

Florida saw Vietnam War hero John McCain emerging as the Republican front runner, just months after his campaign seemed dead in the water.

Super Tuesday brought another defining moment for both races to the White House: Dominance for one, and deadlock for the other.

For the Republicans, Mr McCain’s victory puts him in pole position for the party nomination. And after months of being in disarray, Republicans are closer now than ever before to rallying around a nominee.

There was no such hope for the Democrats, who face a long and potentially polarising nomination battle after a night of tit-for-tat division of states and delegates.

Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama braced themselves for a pitched struggle in the months to come.

With polls showing the candidates closely matched in many states, the Democratic race appears likely to remain a state-by-state, tooth-and-nail fight to accumulate the 2,025 delegates needed to secure the nomination.

In years when a dominant front runner takes hold of the contest in the early states – as Massachusetts Senator John Kerry did in 2004 – the system of apportioning delegates did not matter: Mr Kerry cruised to victory.

But in a one-on-one race, as this year’s Democratic contest has become, the intricate system for selecting delegates makes the emergence of a front runner very difficult.

New York Senator Clinton, however, goes into the next phase of battle as the stronger candidate, boosted by the powerful psychological advantage of having won key states such as California and New York. It will boost her claim for nationwide appeal, political momentum and fund-raising opportunities, even though the nitty-gritty fight is for delegates.

Mrs Clinton’s continued strong appeal among Hispanics – she was winning nearly six in 10 of their votes – was a big factor in her triumph in California, which also saw 75 per cent of Asian Americans backing her.

The Hispanic vote also fuelled her wins in Arizona and New Jersey, and importantly New York, where she won by a large margin, dispelling fears of her electability.

At the same time, she secured Massachusetts – a sweet and symbolic victory for her despite endorsements of Mr Obama there by Democratic senators Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, and popular African American Democratic governor Deval Patrick.

“This is a strong victory and shows that Hillary Clinton has strength in places where Barack Obama was expected to win,” a statement from the Clinton camp said.

Mr Obama scored a landslide in Georgia, and won in Alabama, Delaware, Kansas, North Dakota, Connecticut, Minnesota, Colorado, Idaho and Utah. His votes came predominantly from African Americans, a group that once used to be a power base for the Clintons.

Early national exit polls on Tuesday showed that a coalition of black, white, young and higher-income voters was flocking to him – undercutting Mrs Clinton’s hold of women and whites.

He was getting support from more than four in 10 women and about the same number of whites, leaving him just a few percentage points behind Mrs Clinton.

That was a narrower deficit than he had faced in most states that had held nominating contests so far, with part of his strength coming from the support of people under the age of 44.

And white men – who had largely voted before for former North Carolina senator John Edwards, who had now dropped out of the race – appeared to be heading in his direction.

But the broader results suggest trouble ahead for the Democrats. They are fracturing along gender and racial lines as they choose between a black man and a white woman.

Since the voting did not produce a clear-cut winner for the Democrats, the coming contests in states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, Louisiana, Washington and Virginia might only increase the pressure to be more divisive.

The Republicans present a different proposition.

They have a chance to coalesce support around Mr McCain, who trailblazed Super Tuesday with a string of crucial wins in California, New York and New Jersey.

His strong showing will probably signal the end of Mr Romney, who was banking on a victory there and a revolt among conservatives against the McCain campaign to give him new life in the race.

But it is not going to be a cakewalk for the Arizona Senator, who still has to win the support of the Republican far-right fringe. His less than firm hold over the party was evident from former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee’s wins in the southern states of Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama and Tennessee – considered the party’s geographic heart.

With his Democratic rivals engaged in a protracted fight, however, Senator McCain will have time on his hands to heal the divisions in the Republican party.

Whether it is Mr Obama or Mrs Clinton who wins, their biggest challenge is to bring the party together. A desire to win back the White House and opposition to President George W. Bush have unified Democrats over the last year.

But that unity is in danger of fraying now.

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