Perhaps the best description of what happened to Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign can be found in the words of Sky Masterson, the protagonist of “Guys and Dolls”:
“One of these days . . . a guy is going to show you a brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is not yet broken. Then this guy is going to offer to bet you that he can make the jack of spades jump out of this brand-new deck of cards and squirt cider in your ear. But, son, do not accept this bet, because as sure as you stand there, you’re going to wind up with an ear full of cider.”
There’s no such thing as a sure thing, the crafty crapshooter was telling his buddy Nathan Detroit, and if Obama ends up with an ear full of cider instead of the Democratic nomination, he’ll have only himself to blame.
As voters prepare to go to the polls tomorrow in North Carolina and Indiana, Obama appears in danger of losing what looked like a sure thing two months ago, when pundits declared he had the Democratic nomination sealed up like a brand-new deck of cards. Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, Jonathan Chait of the New Republic and former Clinton adviser Dick Morris were the most prominent of the Beltway wizards who counted the delegates in early March and pronounced the primary campaign effectively over.
Hillary Clinton — who herself had once been considered a lead-pipe cinch for the nomination — was now doomed beyond hope of redemption, the wizards said. Obama could safely begin focusing his attention on the general-election campaign against the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain.
And then that one-eyed jack jumped out of the deck.
IT MAY HAVE BEEN pure coincidence that on March 13, just days after the pundits published their obituaries of the Clinton campaign, ABC News aired its first report about the radical rantings of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the pastor of Obama’s church in Chicago.
Yet Wright’s radicalism was not news. As early as Jan. 7, Ronald Kessler of NewsMax.com had published an article with the headline, “Barack Obama’s Racist Church.” Given that former Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos is political director of ABC News, the question of how his network stumbled onto the Wright story in mid-March inevitably inspires conspiratorial suspicions.
Whether or not the Wright story was a wild card dealt from the bottom of the deck by Clinton operatives, Obama misplayed it. Rather than treat his 20-year membership in Trinity Church like a common campaign controversy — answer the press-conference questions once, then refuse to respond to future inquiries, dismissing the issue as “old news” — Obama went to Philadelphia on March 18 and delivered a grandiloquent 5,000-word oration on the meaning of race in America.
What followed was a textbook example of how hubris trips up those too eager to believe good news. The press proclaimed Obama’s Philadelphia speech a triumph — among others, Garry Wills went so far as to compare it to Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 Cooper Union address — and with this acclamation ringing in his ears, the nominee-in-waiting decided to take a trip to the tropics.
While Hillary spent the last week of March slogging around Pennsylvania, Obama took a three-day vacation in the Virgin Islands. In a PR coup for the Clinton campaign, news networks showed Obama splashing in the surf on St. Thomas on a weekend when the weather in central Pennsylvania was rain with overnight lows of 39 degrees.
CIDER-IN-THE-EAR episodes continued to plague Obama. Barely a week after returning from vacation, he met with a group of wealthy donors April 6 in San Francisco, where his observations about Pennsylvania’s “bitter” small-town residents were recorded by Huffington Post contributor Mayhill Fowler.
That ignited a firestorm that was still smoldering on April 15, when Obama went to Philadelphia’s Constitution Center for a debate showdown with Hillary. Stephanopoulos and his ABC colleague Charles Gibson tag-teamed Obama with tougher questions than he’d ever faced before, and even his supporters admitted Obama appeared tired and ineffective in his responses.
A week later, with Rush Limbaugh urging his Republican listeners to cross over and vote for Hillary in the talk-radio king’s “Operation Chaos” crusade, Pennsylvanians spit more cider in Obama’s ear. A statistical anomaly — where Hillary’s 54.7 percent of the vote was rounded up, while Obama’s 45.3 percent was rounded down — allowed Team Clinton to claim a “double-digit” 55-45 victory, even though her actual margin was only 9.4 percent.
This spin-inflated margin gave the media an excuse to talk of a Clinton comeback, reiterating the “electability” argument Hillary’s handlers had rehearsed for weeks: Obama couldn’t close the deal, couldn’t win the Big One, couldn’t compete for working-class white voters in swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.
As the airwaves echoed with those arguments, the jack jumped out of that brand-new deck again. Rev. Wright’s late-April whirlwind tour revived the worries about race and radicalism that Obama supposedly had laid to rest with his Lincolnesque lecture in Philadelphia the month before.
On the eve of the vote in Indiana and North Carolina, commentators keep calling Clinton a lost cause. The Washington oddsmakers who told Obama he had the nomination locked up two months ago keep pointing to their trump card: Democratic super-delegates wouldn’t dare pick Hillary over Obama. To do so would offend African-Americans, a constituency who loyally deliver more than 90 percent of their votes to Democrats every November.
Yet the odds are hard to calculate, the way the Clintons play the game. Obama still looks like a sure thing, but Sky Masterson would never take that bet.
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