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A Surprising General Election Opening for Republicans?

By Stuart Rothenberg

As this cycle began, Democrats looked united and prepared to take advantage of deep divisions in the Republicans' ranks. But the increasingly bitter and personal attacks exchanged by Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) suddenly raise the possibility that the eventual Democratic nominee will have to heal wounds that are as deep as those in the GOP.

Could Democrats, who are unified in their dissatisfaction with George W. Bush and have been pleased with their presidential field, really become so divided that they give a surprising opening to the eventual Republican nominee? Yes.

The turn in the Democratic race probably shouldn't be surprising, considering the stakes involved and the reputation of the Clintons for doing whatever needs to be done to win. But few seasoned political observers expected the Democratic contest to degenerate as far as it has into a nasty slugfest.

Had Clinton won both Iowa and New Hampshire and locked up the Democratic nomination quickly, we wouldn't be witnessing the current Democratic messiness. But when Obama shocked Clinton in Iowa, the race morphed dramatically, forcing the campaigns to re-examine their assumptions and strategies.

Clinton apparently concluded that she no longer could afford to stay above the fray, and her husband (and the family's allies) reacted with the ferocity of a wild animal protecting its young.

A mud fight could benefit Clinton in a number of ways: by raising questions about Obama's preparedness for office, by drawing him into a messy, unattractive brawl, and by generally turning off independents and new voters, with whom Obama has had a clear advantage.

Obama's conundrum is simple: How does he defend himself without adopting the Clintons' tactics, thereby making him look like just another politician?

Forced to fight back or look weak and indecisive -- a fatal error in a party that still thinks Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) lost in 2004 because he failed to answer his critics quickly and aggressively enough -- Obama has fought back, portraying the Clintons as inconsistent and untrustworthy. The Illinois Democrat's campaign has even established a "truth squad" to answer charges from the Clinton campaign that the Illinois Senator's campaign believes are distortions or untruths.

The longer the Clinton-Obama race remains a fair fight with a lot riding on each primary, the greater the pressure on each side, and the more likely that the attacks will be personal, not policy-centered. While truces will be proclaimed, the pressure on both sides to turn up the rhetoric will be irresistible.

The Clinton versus Obama contest already has divided the party's traditional coalition along demographic lines. And that probably now guarantees that a sizable part of the Democratic Party will be unhappy with the eventual nominee and will believe that the nominee used unfair tactics to win the nomination.

If Obama becomes his party's nominee, he will have a hard time winning some of the downscale, working-class Democrats who have been crucial to Clinton's early successes.

"Barack Obama doesn't come across as the voice of the blue-collar American," noted one Democratic consultant who agrees that some Clinton voters will have a hard time warming to Obama's style.

If Clinton is nominated, some of Obama's coalition of African-Americans, upscale voters, independents and new voters could easily resent the Clinton campaign and have trouble lining up behind the former first lady, particularly against a strong GOP nominee who reaches out to them.

Black voters aren't likely to defect en masse to the GOP, but many might regard an Obama defeat as evidence that the Democratic establishment didn't play fair and took whatever steps it needed to deny Obama the nomination. And you can pretty much bet that some high-profile black leader will comment that the Democratic Party is happy to get black votes but isn't willing to nominate a black candidate.

Two Democratic operatives who don't have a horse in the presidential contest told me this week that while Clinton almost certainly could succeed in persuading African-Americans to back her in the general election, she would be forced to spend time doing that rather than wooing independents or weak Republicans.

This, of course, opens up another whole can of worms. Would Clinton need to ask Obama to join her as her running mate, even though the two camps seem increasingly hostile? And if Clinton is the nominee and seems to pander to African-Americans to keep them energized for a ticket without an African-American on it, would that create problems for the party among swing voters?

Clinton's even bigger problem in a general election could be with independents, who might be put off by the former first lady's tough tactics. Obama won a plurality of independents who participated in the Democratic contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.

At this point, it's wise not to exaggerate the Democrats' problems. After all, a weak economy, the war in Iraq and a Bush administration with low job-performance numbers will give any Democratic nominee the advantage in the general election. But Democrats have a developing problem, and ignoring it will not make it go away.

Stuart Rothenberg is the editor of the The Rothenberg Political Report, and a regular columnist for Roll Call Newspaper.

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