Vice Presidential Binds

OK, I said I was taking a break from new posts, but then I got worried: what if one of the candidates announces his selction for a running mate before I pick up regular writing for this blog again? I would lose the opportunity to comment on the how the choice they make will limit the effectiveness of their campaign strategies. And that’s something I don’t want to miss. After all, candidates and their advisors spend months and millions to devise the perfect strategy. And now it’s likely the most visible pre-election choice the candidates will make will undermine the investment. Isn’t poltics fun?

The campaign strategies of Senators John McCain and Barack Obama are pretty well in place. The Republican is the experienced maverick who talks straight and has the background to lead the nation during wartime. The proof is his military experience. It’s a point Senator McCain makes frequently. For example, when Senator Obama attacked Senator McCain for failing to support expansion of  to the GI Bill, Senator McCain countered, saying, “And I take a backseat to no one in my affection, respect and devotion to veterans. And I will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did.”

It’s a good line and it highlights a fair distinction between the two candidates. One may question whether only service in the military allows a political leader to understand what’s at stake and what needs to be done during dangerous times such of these. But it’s a belief Senator McCain adheres to. He claims it as a basis for his pre-surge disagreements with the Administration on how the war in Iraq should be waged. And has explicitly questioned whether those without military service are qualified to be president. Back in November 2007 Senator McCain said, “There’s a clear division between those who have a military background and experience [with wartime issues] and people like [former Mayor Rudy] Giuliani, [former Governor] Romney and [former Senator Fred] Thompson who don’t – who chose to do other things when this nation was fighting its wars.”

And there’s the rub. When Senator McCain introduces his running mate, he will be saying, in essence, that this person has what it takes to be president. If that person lacks military experience it undermines his own core qualification. Otherwise it’s an admission that this “clear division” isn’t all that important.

That’s bad news for GOP VP front runner Governor Romney, but he’s not the only potential nominee to fail Senator McCain’s military service litmus test. So would former Governor Mike Huckabee, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman (or any of the women mentioned as possible selections), and Governors Charlie Crist of Florida, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota. He can’t say they are qualified to be president, but then say Senator Obama isn’t for failing to serve in uniform.

The list of Republicans frequently mentioned as Vice Presidential nominees who pass the litmus test are few — actually, just two. Former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge (also a former Congressman and Governor of Pennsylvania) served in Viet Nam. And South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham served in the Air Force’s Judge Advocate General’s Corp. That’s a truly short list. 

Senator Obama is in a similar bind. His campaign strategy hinges on “Change We Can Believe In.” Out with the old (politics) and in with the new. Yet, he also needs to reassure voters his inexperience in higher office is not a detriment. One way to do that is to select a running mate with a deep resume – especially in foreign policy where Senator Obama is arguably weakest.

That would strengthen the argument for selecting Senator Joe Biden or Christopher Dodd. Yet they have each held office for longer than many Obama supporters have been alive. Senator Hillary Clinton is symbolic of the 90’s, not the 21st Century.

On the other hand, other potential running mates have political biographies not much longer than Senator Obama’s. Neither Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano nor Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius have experience on the national scene. Former General Wesley Clark has never held elected office.

Balancing “experience” and “new politics” will be tough. No candidate is perfect, but the two frequently mentioned Democrats who come closest are Senator Evan Bayh (two terms as Governor of Indiana and now in his second term in the Senate, including tenure on the Intelligence and Armed Services Committees) and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (former U.N. Ambassador and Congressman). Governor Richardson is has more of a maverick reputation than the Senator, although the Senator’s proven ability to win in a Red state highlights his ability to be beyond old-school partisanship. (Full disclosure, I’ve previously written about my belief that Senator Bayh as a the Vice Presidential nominee best strengthens the Democratic ticket

The selection of a running mate says a lot about the presidential candidate. Any choice carries both political benefits and baggage. What’s significant is that neither Senator McCain or Senator Obama have a lot of choices that bolster their core messages.

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Should Clinton Withdraw Before March 4th?

The drumbeat has started. We first heard it concerning the Republican nomination race. By February 5th Senator John McCain had pulled ahead and it was time for former Governors Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee to politely give up. Governor Romney did; Governor Huckabee didn’t. As a result, I believe, Governor Huckabee is emerging as the stronger future GOP candidate. He’s been able to get in front of groups and gain the support of constituencies that would have been impossible if he had called it quits after Super Tuesday.

Now the gentle urgings of withdrawal are being heard in the Democratic presidential campaign. Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter suggests departing from the playing field before the Texas and Ohio primaries on March 4th, “would be the best thing imaginable for Hillary’s political career.” Robert Novak, writing in the Washington Post, puts the issue in terms of what’s good for the Democratic Party. “[T]he sooner she leaves the race, the more it will improve the party’s chances of defeating Senator John McCain in November.”

I think they’re both wrong.

As long as Senator Clinton runs a positive campaign, she’ll boost her own political standing as well as strengthen the Democratic party’s general election outlook. She’ll have an opportunity to promote her ideals, to change the public’s perception of her as a policy wonk out-of-touch with common people. Consider: if she had dropped out before the Democratic debate in Austin last week, no one would have heard her closing statement — which so potently explained the reason for her candidacy her campaign has turned it into a 60-second commercial now airing in Texas and Ohio.

At the same time, she is forcing Senator Barack Obama to refine his message and to provide the specifics that back up his soaring rhetoric. Interestingly, he’s doing just that with his own advertisement, urging voters to log onto his web site to download his 64 page “The Blueprint for Change.”

Between now and March 4th Senator Clinton should use every day to explain why she’s striving for the nation’s highest office. That means talking about her own strengths, not Senator Obama’s weaknesses. Any time spent trying to convince voters Senator Obama is unqualified to be president, she’s helping Senator John McCain and the GOP. She’s also wasting time and opportunity. Her attacks to date have been, without exception, ineffective. It’s foolish to continue a strategy that’s proven to be a failure. Unless she wants to convince voters she’s incapable of learning from her mistakes.

Just look at the media responseto her attack on Senator Obama’s brochures concerning her positions on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The press has focused attention on the issues Senator Obama hopes voters will think about, not the ones that favor her own campaign. And in scolding her opponent (“Shame on you, Barack Obama”) she distracts from her more attractive attributes — intelligence and a history of caring about those without power). Besides, she shouldn’t be the one out there attacking Senator Obama — that’s what surrogates are for. Instead, Senator Clinton needs to talk more about what she’ll do for working Americans.

Mr. Alter and Mr. Novak are right in stating that Senator Clinton’s and the Democratic party’s future depends a great deal on what Senator Clinton does in the next several days. Everything Senator Clinton does from now through the rest of the campaign shapes her political image and, perhaps, her political legacy. She can position herself as a caring leader or a down-and-dirty politician. She can keep the focus on issues Democrats, independents and swing Republicans care about or she can divert attention to petty, meaningless attacks.

Her future is in her own hands.

Is Huckabee Good for McCain or for Democrats?

Given his druthers, Senator John McCain would love to have former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee pack it in. From Senator McCain’s perspective the GOP nomination process is over and he won it. That’s a valid conclusion given the math. Senator McCain would have a hard time not capturing the 1,191 delegates needed for the GOP nomination in the next few weeks. From this point of view, Governor Huckabee’s continued campaigning appears more hopeless and egotistical than quixotic.

Yet staying in the race makes lots of sense from where Governor Huckabee stands. As the only alternative left for the anti-McCain forces, the Governor is likely to poll strongly in the remaining contests. He’ll be able to spin these results as evidence he’s more than just a niche candidate from the religious right. Support from a broader segment of the party will allow him to claim the conservative mantle in the future. Considering that if the Democrats win the White House in the Republican campaign for 2012 begins on November 5th, that’s a welcome result for the Governor. Why should he quit any time soon?

But is that really bad news for Senator McCain?

Not if he plays his cards right. The temptation for Senator McCain and his advisers will be to turn to the right, to try to undercut Governor Huckabee’s support among conservatives. That would be a waste of resources and foolish.

First, it wouldn’t work. Senator McCain can’t move to the right of Governor Huckabee. There’s simply too little room there. Second, the effort to right flank the Governor would undercut the core of Senator McCain’s political strength: his reputation for integrity and straight talk. Senator McCain’s standing in the polls plummeted over the summer, a period in which he was spending more time pandering to the right wing of his party than promoting those virtues. He’s going to get the nomination whether he panders or not, so he may as well demonstrate to independents that while he may be a conservative, he’s a maverick conservative they can trust.

This is why Governor Huckabee as the anti-McCain is good news for the Senator. Governor Huckabee scares many independents and Democrats. He’s a nice guy, the most personable of all the Republican candidates who ran this year. But he campaigns as a Christian leader in a country that still values the separation of church and state. He is too embedded in the rightous right to be easily embraced by independent minded voters.

Which is why, incidentally, he’d make an awful vice presidential pick. Senator McCain can choose among plenty thoughtful conservatives when selecting a running mate. His goal should be to use that decision to strengthen his appeal to swing voters. Selecting Governor Huckabee would do the opposite. If Senator McCain is to have any chance of winning in November, it will be from reaching out to the vast center where most voters dwell.

It’s those centrist voters that Senator McCain will be battling for whether the Democratic nominee is Senator Hillary Clinton or Senator Barack Obama. The Democrats will try to pigeon hole Senator McCain as a conservative who pretends to talk straight, but doesn’t. One of Senator Obama’s best lines in the Los Angeles debate was describing Senator McCain’s change of heart on the Bush tax cuts as “the wheels falling off the Straight Talk Express.” The more issues that quip applies to, the better for the Democrats.

The Democrats will also benefit if conservatives make their effort to stop Senator McCain a crusade (holy or otherwise). The eventual defeat of Governor Huckabee could then be perceived by conservatives as a personal rebuke by the party. Rebuked, they may sit out the general election. (This is less likely if Senator Clinton is the nominee, but that’s a topic for a later post). Sitting out the general election could put into play several states that last time around went for President George Bush.

This means Governor Huckabee needs to play his hand carefully, too. He needs to promote his views without denigrating those held by Senator McCain. He needs to offer himself as a conservative alternative, without demeaning his opponent. Otherwise, instead of emerging from the 2008 campaign as a strong conservative leader, he’ll find himself blamed for handing the White House to the Democrats.

Governor Huckabee seems to understand this dynamic and his personality and political demeanor both lend themselves to a high road candidacy. Whether his supporters will follow his lead, however, is the big unknown.

If Senator McCain uses the continued candidacy of Governor Huckabee to strengthen his image as a maverick and a straight talker, the remaining Republican contests can strengthen his chances in the general election. On the other hand, if he succumbs to temptation and tries to out right the Governor, Democrats will be the beneficiary of the Huckabee campaign.

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Results of the Third Unscientific Presidential Survey

Results from the third Alan Katz Politics Blog Unscientific Presidential Survey are in. As has been the case in the real world, we had a record breaking turnout for this poll. Also for the first time, the number of Democrats and Republicans participating in the poll were the same, each representing 40 percent of the total.

Democrats: Super Tuesday was pretty much a tie in the real world. They both won a number of states, their total popular vote was extremely close, and their delegate totals were neck-and-neck. In our survey, however,  Senator Barack Obama was the clear winner over Senator Hillary Clinton. Based on the demographics of their core supporters, this would imply that more readers of this blog hang out at Starbucks rather than WalMart and are less than 60 years old. There was a small group of Democrats responding to the survey that were still pining for former Senator John Edwards and hadn’t yet decided who their new candidate would be. Presumably they decided by Tuesday night.

More than 60 percent of the Democrats could not see themselves voting for a Republican in the fall. Of those who could, Senator John McCain and former Governor Mitt Romney split their vote, with former Governor Mike Huckabee had only one Democrat willing to vote for him in the general election.

Republicans: Senator McCain may have been the big winner on Super Tuesday, but it was a lot closer among the respondents to this survey. Senator McCain edged out Governor Romney and the comeback kid, Governor Huckabee finished a distant third. When second choices were counted, Governor Romney closed the gap while Governor Huckabee remained an also ran.

The vast majority of Republicans are unwilling to consider voting for a Democrat in November, but among the few who would, Senators Obama and Clinton split their votes.

Independents: Both Senators Obama and McCain have received significant support from independents. In fact, without their support, Senator McCain would be unlikely to be the GOP frontrunner. In our unscientific survey, Senator Obama was the clear winner among unaffiliated voters.

Heads-up: Participants in the survey were able to vote in six hypothetical general election match-ups. The results were a clean sweep by Senator Obama who outpolled each of the GOP candidates by more than 15 percentage points. Senator Clinton bested Governor Romney and Huckabee, but by a much smaller margin. And she lost to Senator McCain by over five percent.

What does all this mean? Well, it was an unscientific survey, so not much. Of course, believers in Creative Design should have no problem giving credence to this poll, in which case it clearly shows Senator Obama would be the strongest Democrat and Senator McCain the strong Republican in the general election. But that’s obvious from real world elections, too.

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Huckabee: The Waning of the Religious Right?

Super Amazing Whopping Tuesday is almost upon us and the question is, what will it mean? For Senators Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain and former Governor Mitt Romney, we’ll know more Tuesday night. For former Governor Mike Huckabee, however, the writing is on the wall and the message is bad for him and his core constituency, the religious right. And that’s a good thing.Whether Governor Huckabee’s drops out or not after tomorrow’s almost-a-national-primary is pretty much a question of ego and stubbornness. Nonetheless, by February 6th it will be clear his chances of winning the GOP nomination are roughly equivalent to Rudy Giuliani’s chances of winning a Role Model of the Year Award from Focus on the Family.Governor Huckabee’s high watermark was Iowa where conservative Christians helped him score a surprising win. Having been written off mere weeks earlier, he was suddenly among the front runners. The press covered what he did and said. Opponents targeted him. He was a serious contender for the Republican nomination.

He was unable, however, to either build beyond his evangelical base or unite it. In some states (think New Hampshire) there were too few evangelicals to make much of a dent. In others (such as South Carolina) their support was split among several of the candidates.

The result: increasingly disappointing showings dropped Governor Huckabee back to the second tier where the votes are few and the dollars fewer. He’ll gain some delegates on February 5th, but not enough. And running low on funds will make it difficult for him to remain an active candidate.

There’s two items of note in Governor Huckabee’s unraveling. First, it displayed the arrogance of the media. Even though he was the trailing candidate, he should not have been shunted aside by CNN’s Anderson Cooper and the panelists at the Republican debate held last week. He’s still in the race. He still has a constituency. By relegating him to the role of stage prop the reporters created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Treat a candidate as irrelevant and by gosh he’ll become irrelevant. Even faster than he would have on his own.

The second, and more profound message of his campaign’s demise is what it says about the waning power of the religious right.

There was a time when it was their way or the highway (to Hell). Just ask Senator McCain circa 2000. Yet here we are, with the most open presidential election in decades and conservative Christians have to choose between the Senator McCain and Governor Romney?

If the religious right had come together behind a candidate a year ago they could have had a tremendous impact on the nomination. Whether it was Governor Huckabee, Senator Sam Brownback or someone else, united evangelical support for a candidate would have made that candidate a first tier candidate when it might have done some good.

Instead, they seemed content to have all the candidates traipse around to their various conventions to show respect — and, at times, unseemly obsequious. Senator McCain gave new meaning to the term “straight talk” in his efforts to make up with those who helped derail his campaign in 2000. Senator Romney performed a perfect 180 degree pirouette on various issues for their entertainment. But you could tell the candidates’ hearts weren’t in it. If either gains the White House their policies won’t follow the chosen path nearly as well and certainly not as fervently as a Huckabee Administration would.

Evangelicals could have had someone in the White House who not only believes that evolution is still an open issue, but would do something about it. Instead, the Republican GOP will be a politician hoping to please a constituency, not a true believer.

Why did they wait? Was it that Governor Huckabee has a populist streak that sometimes looks liberal? Were they hunting for electability? Or did they simply like all the attention and flattery they were receiving?

When they finally did start to rally behind Governor Huckabee it was too late in the game. And then they failed to follow through.

Conservative Christians will still be a factor come November, but by then a great deal of their impact will have dissipated. Many of the states in which they have a strong presence are safe for the Republicans. In some close they may make a difference, but far less than if they’d come together earlier.

For those of us who believe the influence of the religious right’s on the nation’s politics — and especially on the GOP — is unhealthy, this is all good news. It may signal the beginning of a trend where disagreeing with self-proclaimed messengers from on high doesn’t condemn a candidate to eternal damnation. And it could mark the return to politics where pursuing principles matter more than adherence to dogma.

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McCain Proves He Can Win A GOP Primary; Giuliani Proves He Can’t

Sure, Senator John McCain won the New Hampshire and South Carolina Republican primaries. To purists in the party, however, these victories required a Barry Bonds size asterisk: they were open to non-Republicans. In fact, but for the margins he built up among independents, exit polls show Senator McCain would have lost to former Governor Mitt Romney in New Hampshire and to former Governor Mike Huckabee in South Carolina, in both cases by one percent.

Which makes Senator McCain’s five point victory over Governor Romney in Florida’s Republican-only primary today all the more significant. Not only does Senator McCain win all the state’s delegates, he erases the asterisk.

 Ironically for a candidate who is considered an outsider by many Republicans, Senator McCain’s candidacy in the Sunshine State was bolstered by two major establishment endorsements: that of Florida’s Governor Charlie Crist and its Republican U.S. Senator, Mel Martinez.

Florida was fiercely contested by all the Republican candidates and not just as the boost it will promised leading up to next Tuesday, when 19 states will select delegates to the Republican convention. It was also the state in which former Mayor Rudy Giuliani chose to make his stand. After claiming to have sat out of the earlier primaries and caucuses, Mayor Giuliani staked his candidacy on a strong showing in Florida. He failed. Senator McCain received 36 percent of the vote while Governor Romney’s pulled in 31 percent.  while Mayor Giuliani is barely holding on to third place with 15 percent of the vote; just ahead of Governor Huckabee’s 14 percent.

As expected, Governor Huckabee has already pledged to continue campaigning through Super Tuesday. After all, Alabama, Georgia and other conservative states, including his home base of Arkansas, are scheduled to vote on February 5th. Even with little cash left Governor Huckabee is likely to pick up a significant number of delegates.

I had thought Mayor Giuliani would stick around another week, too. I figured he should do well in New York and New Jersey at the very least. Yet polls show him trailing Senator McCain in both states — and things are likely to get worse for him. New Yorkers remember that on September 10, 2001, Mayor Giuliani was extremely unpopular. With his poor showing in Florida they also know he won’t be president any time soon. Embarrassing him on his home turf might appeal to some GOP voters while others will simply prefer to cast their vote on a candidate with a real chance.

Losing New York would not only harm his political standing, but, perhaps worse, it would bruise his ego. Someone even mentioned it would be bad for his consulting business, too. The rumor is that he’ll drop out of the race while in California on Wednesday and endorse Senator McCain. 

The Republican nomination is rapidly becoming a two person race. While Governor Huckabee will continue to be a factor in some states, in most he’ll finish a distant third. Given his campaign’s financial straits, I’d be surprised if he stays in the race for long after February 5th.

Which means the big question is whether Senator McCain’s asterisk-free momentum can overcome Governor Romney’s bottomless war chest. It will be interesting to watch the answer emerge.

Florida Results Unlikely to Narrow GOP Field Before February 5th

If you like horse races you’ve gotta love Florida. The polls are showing three candidates jockeying for the lead in the January 29th primary with another within striking distance. Of course, if we’ve learned one thing this election season it’s that the polls are so fluid they can only be taken as a snap shots of possibilities. It’s the political equivalent of the uncertainty principal: the mere observation of an event alters it.

So, even though the polls don’t mean much: the latest survey (conducted on January 20th) from Rasmussen Reports shows former Governor Mitt Romney (25 percent) with a slight lead over Seantor John McCain (20 percent) and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani (19 percent). Former Governor Mike Huckabee (13 percent) is not far behind.  With a week to go, anything can happen, but things are looking up for Governor Mitt Romney. Only a week ago, he, Senator McCain, Governor Huckabee and Mayor Giuliani were in a statistical tie in the Rasmussen Reports telephone survey.

Other surveys have slightly different rankings. For example, the SurveyUSA poll, also conducted January 20th,  places Senator McCain in front (25 percent) followed by Mayor Giuliani (20 percent), Governor Romney (19 percent) and Governor Huckabee (14 percent). 

What to take from these differing results? It’s a close race. And with Senator Fred Thompson withdrawing from the field today, the roughly 12 percent of GOP voters supporting him are up for grabs. The polls are likely to scramble a lot more between now and Florida’s election day.

But on January 29th, one candidate will win, the others won’t. (That’s why election days are often referred to as the only poll that counts). The impact on the presidential campaign will be enormous, but I don’t expect it will drive any of the four major candidates from the race.

Mayor Giuliani
No one has more at stake in Florida than the former mayor of New York. His campaign strategy of “ignoring” the early events resulted in him being all but ignored over the past few weeks. His poor showing in the initial contests was  een more devastating because he didn’t really ignore all of them. He invested considerable time and money in New Hampshire for example, yet finished a distant fourth there with just nine percent. All these early defeats will be (mostly) forgotten if he wins in Florida and he’ll be a legitimate contender come Super Duper Tuesday on February 5th.

If he loses, however, Mayor Giuliani’s campaign will be low on funds and pretty much futile. With New York and New Jersey, his home base, holding primaries on February 5th, however, he’ll no doubt stick around for at least one more week, hoping he can earn enough delegates to be a factor at the convention — and have something to show for the roughly $50 million he will have spent.

Governor Hucklebee
Senator Thompson pulled 15 percent of the evangelical Christian voter in South Carolina. Governor Huckabee earned the support of over 40 percent of this constituency. He’ll be spending considerable effort in securing more than his fair share of those who had been supporting the former Tennessee Senator. Governor Huckabee will also benefit from this being a Republican only primary — independents can’t participate in the Florida GOP election. Exit polls show Governor Huckabee would have won South Carolina but for independents who showed up to support Senator McCain. Without their participation in the Florida election, Governor Hucklebee’s chances of winning or coming in a strong second significantly improve.

He needs, however, to come in first. The results from Iowa are receding into distant memory — they were, after all nearly four weeks ago. If he’s to replenish his war chest and compete seriously in the nearly-national primary on February 5th, Florida is where he needs to shine.

If he loses, the odds of his gaining the nomination drop to near zero.  Losing South Carolina was bad news for the former Arkansas Governor. Anything less than a second place showing in Florida and his chances at the nomination go from slim to none. He too, however, may want to stick around one more week to see if he can add to his delegate total. He should, for example, do well in states like Alabama and Arkansas. Whether he’ll have the funds to campaign in many of the states voting on February 5th, is another question.

Governor Romney
His win in Michigan meaningful, but Governor Romney’s fourth place finish in South Carolina didn’t help much. A win in Florida, however, could well turn the remainder of the campaign into a two-man battle against Senator McCain. Pitted one-on-one, the Governor’s massive war chest and strong organization will be most potent. And his conservative positions, although relatively recent, may do well against the more maverick policies of the Arizona Senator.

A loss here, however, sucks a lot of wind out of the Romney campaign. Anything less than second place marks his candidacy as erratic, unable to consistently pull from any constituencies long enough to seize a winner’s momentum. Of course, with his money and resources, even a poor showing in Florida won’t drive him out of the race. He’ll remain a factor until the convention or someone earns more than half the delegates needed to win.

Senator McCain
New Hampshire and South Carolina were sweet victories, personally and politically. A win in Florida would establish Senator McCain as the clear front-runner heading into the February 5th, especially since it would be a victory “untainted” by independent voters — proof he’s appealing to party stalwarts. The result should be the money and momentum he needs to succeed come Super Tuesday.

A loss, however, would muddle the picture sufficiently to put the Senator back into the pack. If he comes close, even if he finishes third, Senator McCain will remain a top tier candidate. Raising sufficient funds to stay there, however, will become much more challenging.

Clearly, the Florida GOP primary will be critical in determining the party’s eventual nominee. The winner will receive a significant boost. The chances of those candidates finishing third or lower will be greatly diminished. However, with hundreds of delegates up for grabs one week later no candidate is likely to drop from the campaign. The chance of stumbling forwarding and harvesting a few more delegates to the convention will be too strong.

Continuing beyond February 6th? For some of these candidates, that wil be a wholly different matter.

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