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From dreams to nightmares
Hillary risks undermining not just Obama but his vision

"Yes She Will" beat "Yes We Can" on Tuesday, and the Democratic primary just got a whole lot longer. Perhaps a whole lot uglier.

Counting up the delegates Obama has amassed so far makes it pretty clear that Hillary, even with victories in Ohio and Texas, will have a hard time coming out with a clean win. Assuming Hillary triumphs in every single one of the next 16 state primaries, Jonathan Alter of Newsweek comes up with a net deficit of 58 pledged delegates for Clinton: 1,634 Obama vs. 1,576 Clinton. Even if do-over elections are scheduled in Michigan and Florida, Alter writes, it would be hard to overcome that margin.

What will the superdelegates do if Clinton is behind by 56, but has badly damaged Obama with an increasingly negative campaign?

Hillary could pull it out, fighting tooth and nail all the way to the convention. But she'd have to bring down her fellow Democrat, and work arcane rules that could leave us with a 2000-like divide between the popular vote and the official outcome of the election.

The last debate between the two candidates, in Ohio, showed how a protracted campaign can drain the energy out of a once-enthusiastic Democratic electorate.

Hillary risks dragging the whole party down with her attacks on Obama: the mockery, the sarcasm, the strange mood swings from conciliation to "shame on you!" and the scary ads à la Barry Goldwater about a 3 a.m. crisis while your children are sleeping. What's next? A little girl with a daisy followed by a mushroom cloud? The Republicans are surely taking notes.

There are legitimate concerns about Obama. He is untested. He has not served in national office for long. His record, from a politically left standpoint, has its flaws.

Obama did not stand up to end the death penalty in Illinois - only to mend it, to make it less likely that innocent people would be killed. He does not call for universal, single-payer health care, but for a free-market/government-run hybrid. Austan Goolsbee, the hotshot economist from the University of Chicago who helped craft Obama's economic policies, dealt the campaign a terrible blow by telling the Canadian government that Obama's criticism of NAFTA is just empty talk.

Obama's references to his Senate accomplishments - like making sure injured vets don't have to pay for their own food and phone calls - recall Bill Clinton's masterful combination of soaring speeches and micro-initiatives. But there is also good reason why Obama has inspired so much enthusiastic support.

We saw it here in Wisconsin, with his enormous emotional appeal, which packed the Kohl Center. We saw it again on Tuesday night in his speech after his losses in Texas and Ohio, when he talked about the way the world is riveted by this campaign.

Most of all, it can been seen in his first book, Dreams From My Father. The long section on his work as a community organizer in Chicago says everything you need to know about what a different kind of candidate Obama really is.

No one since Lyndon Johnson has had the kind of up-close, empathetic experience with America's caste system Obama has. Dreams From My Father is a meditation on how race and class divide this country, and how, despite the treasured national myth of upward mobility and a "melting pot" culture, millions of Americans live in places that bear no resemblance to the America on TV.

It was Hillary who had the temerity to claim, early in the primary season, that "we all start out equal" as candidates for president. As if being first lady didn't give her a leg up. But Obama gives meaning to the shopworn clichés about equal opportunity and the American dream.

In his book, he wrestles with the demons of paranoia and self-destructive anger that plague poor African Americans who run up against entrenched racism every day. Obama's deep, sympathetic understanding of the nature of that frustration gives rise to his vision of a way out of that dead end.

Of all the candidates, Obama has the most American story. It's about the struggle over assimilation and a vision of civil rights and social justice in a multicultural society - a vision that could transform the bromides about our democracy in the wake of Katrina and Abu Graib.

If Obama goes down in a bitter, contested battle, the loss will be felt keenly far beyond his campaign.

Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive magazine.

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