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The nightmare scenario for Democrats

It's more likely than ever that party big shots - mainly more than 400 uncommitted "super delegates" - will be the final arbiters, thereby angering either the Clinton or Obama camp with a throwback to the politics of smoke-filled rooms.

It's more likely than ever that party big shots - mainly more than 400 uncommitted "super delegates" - will be the final arbiters, thereby angering either the Clinton or Obama camp with a throwback to the politics of smoke-filled rooms.

Talk to hard-core Democrats in every corner of the country and no matter whom they support in their party’s tight-as-a-tick presidential nomination fight, they all say one thing: Democrats, do not mess this one up.

But unfortunately for Democrats who believe the moment is right for a return to the White House after an eight-year absence, the ingredients for a nightmare scenario have emerged.

The close fight between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, coupled with the Democrats’ rules that reward second place, prescribe a drawn-out fight for the nomination in a primary season that has exposed significant race, ethnicity and gender divides.

The two candidates pivot to a campaign calendar that could re-inject Bill Clinton as a divider.

And it’s more likely than ever that party big shots – mainly more than 400 uncommitted “super delegates” – will be the final arbiters, thereby angering either the Clinton or Obama camp with a throwback to the politics of smoke-filled rooms.

This scenario has been overlooked because of the resistance that the likely Republican nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, is getting in the Republican Party.

But with McCain wrapping up the GOP nomination, he will have time to mend fences and raise money while the Democrats engage in what is essentially a battle for the party’s soul.

It’s still possible for Democrats to avoid this rancor, but it would take a stretch of reality.

First, it would require that Bill Clinton remain in a supportive role while it appears the nomination that everyone says was his wife’s to lose might just be lost.

After Bill Clinton attacked Obama in South Carolina and was rebuked by party leaders for it, Clinton got back on message and helped in key states like California. But the Clintons also were going into a Super Tuesday of favorable prospects. Contests throughout February are not so favorable for her and if it looks like the nomination is slipping away again, watch out.

Second, either Obama or Clinton would have to bow out while still technically viable in the delegate fight, something that is unlikely to happen for two reasons.

First, Hillary Clinton is running an heir apparent campaign that is heavily connected to the successes of her husband’s administration.

There are too many Democrats who view the 1990s as Happy Days, and there are too many others who believe she is a candidate of destiny as the first serious female contender for the White House.

Neither faction will stand by and watch her surrender for the good of the party. Each faction believes it is the good of the party.

Second, Obama’s campaign is the closest thing to a movement the Democrats have had in a long time and one that appears to be on the upswing.

There is evidence that the longer Obama is exposed to Democratic primary voters, the better he does. The primaries and caucuses over the next four weeks favor him and should boost his fundraising.

If you have money, momentum and parity in delegates, why even talk about giving in for the good of the party when your movement is all about a generational takeover of that party?

One of the Democrats’ problems is that Clinton and Obama are not very far apart on issues. This is a prescription for a campaign that necessarily turns on character, leadership, truthfulness and other human traits, which can get nasty unless weary candidates have the discipline to keep it civil.

Both Obama and Clinton were able to do that in a substantive debate in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago. But will they remain so if the stakes rise?

David Keene, president of the American Conservative Union, said that when a colleague once lamented that Republican conservatives and moderates were fighting about issues, Keene warned the colleague to “look out when they agree on everything. ”

“I said, ‘When that happens, the only thing they can do is call each other names,’ ” Keene said. “The Democratic Party has become so homogenous that about all they can do is stand there and call the other side jerks.”

The Democrats are most unified about the need to be unified. But the presidential exit polls show sharp divisions along race, ethnicity and gender.

Obama has been piling up 9-1 margins among black voters while Clinton is winning Latinos by nearly as big a margin.

Clinton has a huge female gender gap. If, in the course of the campaign ahead, it is perceived that either candidate has disrespected one of these important groups, watch out.

Ron Walters, a veteran adviser to Jesse Jackson and other Democrats, said he believes the race and gender differences showing up in exit polls will be healed once the party gets its nominee.

And he believes there will be a big incentive, pushed by party leaders, to avoid a convention fight in Denver in August.

“It is not in the interest of either one of them to have a deadlocked, rancor-filled convention,” said Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland.

But where, and when, will either Obama or Clinton feel compelled to give in for the interest of the party?

If the voters don’t sort it out in the next 11 weeks before the Pennsylvania primary, it may be up to party leaders to do it. And that is a prescription for rancor all the way to November.

Chuck Raasch is political editor for Gannett News Service. E-mail: craasch@gns.gannett.com. Get more behind-the-scenes reports, context and analysis about politicians and the political process in Raasch’s Furthermore blog.

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