A long time ago, which is to say at least a month or two ago, I consoled some friends who were despairing of the nastiness of the Democratic race by telling them that whoever won would be the better candidate for it, and that we might need a real race to produce a real winner.
I still believe that.
The conventional wisdom has it that the earlier you wrap up your party's nomination, the more it is worth. The longer it takes to pick a nominee, the more likely that nominee is to lose. I can name plenty of examples of this, any number of whom I've worked for, starting with Carter in 1980 and Mondale in 1984. Then again, Kerry wrapped it up early and easy, and we saw how well he did.
Still, the argument is that the earlier you wrap it up, the sooner you can start putting your own house together and focusing on the general election. The sooner you win, the sooner you stop getting beaten up by your friends, as well as your enemies. The easier it is to win, the less time you have to spend appealing to the party ideologues who tend to control the early contests, rather than the independent voters who decide general elections.
So, according to the conventional wisdom, John McCain, with no small thanks to Mike Huckabee, is in better shape this morning than either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Whether you judge by the arithmetic of delegate counts or by the strength of the alternative(s), McCain is a lot closer to his acceptance speech than Democrats are to deciding who will be delivering one come next August in Denver.
But this is not a conventional year.
McCain may be closing in on the nomination, but he is earning more ire from the talking heads in his own party than either Clinton or Obama are from Democrats. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter have not given up, or given in. The nastiness of the attacks and counterattacks between and among Romney, McCain and Huckabee belies the conclusiveness of last night's Republican results. The usual reason for candidates to drop out, the absence of money, simply doesn't apply in the case of a man of Mitt Romney's wealth, and even hardheaded businessmen like him sometimes have trouble reading the handwriting on the wall when the subject is themselves.
Which brings me back to the Obama-Clinton race. Whatever the personal feelings between the two, their supporters don't hate each other. This is not Kennedy-Carter 1980, or even Mondale-Hart 1984. Most Clinton people I talk to like Obama. Most Obama people, even if they are not Clinton fans, are without question Democrats who will support the first woman to be nominated for president against a man who talks about a hundred-year war in Iraq. The big issue for many Democrats, both Obama and Clinton supporters, is the giant unknown: Who would be in the best position to beat John McCain?
There is no consensus on that. It is the issue that will dominate debate on the Democratic side for the next two months. It is a question worthy of debate, and the winner of that debate should be the Democratic nominee for president. Call me Pollyanna, but I for one believe we can't afford to answer it the wrong way. It's not the usual way of thinking about picking the strongest possible nominee, but then, nothing about this race between a woman and a black is very much like past years.
To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.