Score: another big win for Hillary Clinton. On one reading, the bottom line is that the Pennsylvania result does not fundamentally alter the primary dynamic. Ms Clinton looks to have gained a net delegate lead of 15 over Barack Obama. That barely cuts into his lead of total delegates, which still stands at more than 150 among pledged delegates and almost 130 if super-delegates who have declared so far are also included. It makes a similarly small dent in his overall vote l ead. He is more than likely to regain lost ground in delegates and votes in North Carolina where he enjoys a 15-point lead in opinion polls. Nationally, his lead over Ms Clinton has been creeping up, even through all the bitter controversies, and is now into double digits. In the meantime, her negativity rating has also maintained a steady upward trend. If the party were to deny him the nomination by the super-delegates reversing the people's verdict, the Democrats would not just lose this election but lose whole swathes of voters at all levels of government for the next generation. That is not going to happen.
In an editorial entitled "The low road to victory" on April 23, The New York Times, having already endorsed Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, wrote "The Pennsylvania campaign ... was even meaner, more vacuous, more desperate, and more filled with pandering." It added that the time was past for Senator Clinton "to acknowledge that the negativity, for which she is mostly responsible, does nothing but harm to her, her opponent, her party and the 2008 election."
Yet a win is a win, and a ten-point margin of victory is a double digit win. This will most likely ensure that Ms Clinton lives to fight another day and to continue to wound Mr. Obama. For her only remaining argument now is that he is unelectable and his failure to close the deal in one big state after another is proof of that unelectability. Her strategy, therefore, has been and will only intensify to make him unelectable. Much as one might decry her low road to victory, one has to admire her tenacity - and question his.
Speaking in the Australian parliament on October 13, 2005, Prime Minister John Howard famously said of Labour Party leader Kim Beazley that he did not "have the ticker" to be the leader of the country. It was a typically robust Australian English term that more succinctly sums up Ms Clinton's red phone ad. Mortally wounded, Mr. Beazley never recovered from this devastating putdown and the Labour Party captured the government only when Kevin Rudd replaced Mr. Beazley as leader last year.
The now notorious 3 a.m. ad in Ohio was brilliantly effective in encapsulating, in one brief but memorable imagery, all the doubts in voters' minds about Mr. Obama's character, experience and readiness to be commander-in-chief. It was a subliminal and more sophisticated repackaging of Bill Clinton's warning that electing Mr. Obama would be a risky roll of the dice. His exotic name and silent Muslim middle name deepen the subterranean doubts. In her closing TV ad in Pennsylvania, Ms Clinton went full-frontal Republican in recalling images from Pearl Harbour, the Cuban missile crisis, 9/11 and Osama bin Laden in asking voters to think to whom they wanted to entrust their future. At a time of anxiety and uncertainty about jobs, the economy, terrorism and war, voters chose to play safe with Ms Clinton rather than risk Mr. Obama the unknown: better the devil they know.
Ms Clinton has successfully wedged Mr. Obama into a tight and uncomfortable political corner. If he does retaliate in kind, he undermines his core message of the new politics of unity, healing and reconciliation. But if he fails to fight back, he will validate her charge that he isn't tough enough to take on Senator John McCain and the Republican Party - he doesn't have the ticker - and he should exit the presidential bullpen. She simultaneously proves her toughness by attacking him while taunting him to abandon his moral high ground: a lose-lose equation for Mr. Obama.
Mr. Obama needs to get tough and go on the offensive. If he doesn't, perhaps he does not deserve to be elected President. Being President of the most powerful country in the world requires more than the ability to break toothpicks. Ms Clinton may be deficient in other respects but she has certainly shown single-minded ruthlessness in her pursuit of the presidency. The slightest opening, and she pounces. Conversely, she has presented so many openings to Mr. Obama, and he has either been too gentlemanly or just does not have the necessary killer instinct to finish her off.
He needs to discover that, and fast. She gains massive publicity by attacking him directly and coordinating rapid-fire attacks from all her surrogates. To get matching publicity, he must go after her with matching ruthlessness. He must deepen voter doubts over her trustworthiness ("truthiness"), experience, qualifications and potential for the White House being the setting for a return to endless scandals with the Clintons occupying it once again. In addition, he has to respond to accusations using much more forceful and crisp rebuttals than he gave in the last and instantly notorious TV debate. And he must maintain the pressure on how her self-serving negativity damages the party and plays into Republican hands.
Nor were the Clinton years all that glorious in foreign policy: the disasters and horrors of Somalia, Rwanda and Srebrenica all happened on his watch. In distancing himself from his senior foreign policy adviser Samantha Power, Barack Obama solved one problem but created another. In an interview with The Scotsman, she called Hillary Clinton a "monster" who would stoop to anything. Although she tried immediately to put this off the record, her comment had crossed the line of acceptable behaviour. Ms Power was cast adrift and her resignation accepted.
Yet her dismissal demoralised his own base by sacrificing a key adviser rather than being her champion and defender against the Clinton attack machine. Ms Power is a respected scholar and a widely admired activist. Where the Clinton administration bears a primary responsibility for the failure to respond to the Rwanda genocide, Ms Power has worked tirelessly to rouse the world's conscience about this "problem from hell." Her book of this title won the Pulitzer Prize.
Finally, Mr. Obama must begin to speak publicly and often about how the two have managed their respective campaigns as the only direct basis for comparing the two candidates. She began with universal against his zero name recognition; with a vast election war chest; with a campaign organisation, machinery and personnel inherited from the Clinton presidency and carefully nurtured in the intervening years; and yet has faltered and experienced major turmoil. If she cannot control her husband and cannot manage her campaign, how will she run the country?
This will help Mr. Obama to deflate Ms Clinton's carefully constructed public persona and remind voters of past scandals and problems without actually getting down into the gutter. Swiftboating attacks cannot be met by in-kind responses without soiling his own meta-narrative. Subliminal undermining of claims to voters' trust however can and should be matched. Alongside the cathartic and uplifting rhetoric that inspires, he needs to reopen all the familiar doubts about another Clinton administration without resorting to the kitchen sink strategy.
If Mr. Obama doesn't fight back, not only does Ms Clinton define and dominate the agenda, attacking him relentlessly to prove her point that she is a fighter and then recoiling with protestations of injured innocence when questioned on her tactics. In addition, Mr. Obama also risks losing his own supporters who are spoiling for a fight and deepening doubts among super-delegates about his ability to knock out John McCain. Ms Clinton's question is not just legitimate but critical for any presidential aspirant: does he have the hunger, passion and ruthlessness - the "ticker" - to be the leader of the most powerful country in an intensely threatening world?
To return to Australia: someone in the Obama campaign could do worse than study the example of Team India's performance down under. Both Anil Kumble and M.S. Dhoni managed to meet and defeat the below-the-radar tricks by the Australians without surrendering the moral high ground, compromising their dignity or losing their cool.