Well, Super Tuesday is over, and now we have two major party presidential nominees. That's the lead sentence I thought five weeks ago I'd be writing for this column. But the 33-day round of caucuses and primaries that seemed likely to produce decisions after 23 states voted on Super Tuesday have failed to deliver.
True, John McCain appears to have a relatively clear flight path to the Republican nomination. The invaluable realclearpolitics.com Website, as I write, credits him with 697 delegates to 244 for Mitt Romney and 187 for Mike Huckabee.
But the McCain aircraft can expect some turbulence before it gets its wheels down. Vocal conservatives, led by talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, insist that McCain isn't a proper conservative and isn't much of a Republican.
They have something of a point. McCain opposed most in his party on campaign finance and the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts. He opposes it now on climate change legislation and the future of the Guantanamo Bay detention center. But McCain has his arguments, too. No one has been a stauncher supporter of the war on Islamist terrorists (and he calls them by their rightful name). He not only supported the successful surge strategy in 2007, he has been urging something like it since the summer of 2003.
The best argument McCain can make to disgruntled conservatives is that he is a fighter. He has sometimes fought them, and after the 2000 primary campaign he never really stopped fighting George W. Bush until, some time in 2003 and 2004, it became clear to him that the Democrats with whom he was sometimes making common cause were determined to produce defeat in Iraq.
He should look ahead and tell conservatives that he will be fighting with them -- for victory in Iraq and against Islamist terrorists everywhere, to prevent the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, to install conservative judges on the Supreme Court, to keep the Democrats from snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. He can argue that he is like a United States Marine -- no better friend, no worse enemy -- and in the years ahead he is determined there will be no better friend for the causes they hold dearest.
He has the advantage that his two remaining opponents have no plausible route to the nomination. Mitt Romney's checklist conservatism has failed to capture the imagination of the large body of conservative voters. He has won in his three home states, in caucuses dominated by conservative political activists and in high-income enclaves like Naples, Fla., Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and Belmont, Mass. Mike Huckabee won five surprise victories in Southern states on Super Tuesday, but remains a single-digit candidate or close to it among primary voters who don't classify themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians.
And McCain has been lucky. Not only did he triumph in the winner-take-all primaries in the Northeast engineered for Rudy Giuliani, he also beat Huckabee by 1 percent for all 58 delegates from Missouri and shut out Romney in (according to the latest returns) 50 of California's 53 congressional districts. If there is a God, She was looking after McCain's interests on Feb. 5.
She was not looking after Hillary Clinton's or Barack Obama's, though. They came out of Super Tuesday effectively tied in delegates, with realclearpolitics.com giving 1,012 to Clinton and 933 to Obama. The races in the next two weeks favor Obama, and the Texas and Ohio contests on March 4 favor Clinton.
Clinton may end up with a lead thanks to super delegates -- public and party officials with convention votes -- or with whatever Puerto Rican politician controls its 63 votes after its caucus in early June. If so, she would have squelched a candidacy that has aroused more enthusiasm and, to paraphrase its candidate, audacious hope than any other this year.
Clinton and Obama have split the Democrats into rival tribes -- blacks versus Latinos, young versus old, upscale versus downscale, Kennedys versus Clintons. They may eventually smooth over their differences as Democrats have before. But right, now the Clinton and Obama campaigns' paths seem headed in a direction dangerously close to the intraparty equivalent of the 2000 Florida controversy.
Democratic voters in contests to come and Democratic super delegates may want to select the candidate with the best chance of winning. But that's a difficult assignment. Hillary Clinton polarizes general election voters right down the middle, which means (a) she can win and (b) she can lose. Barack Obama, with his soaring rhetoric about what unites Americans, has a higher upside potential but also, with his lack of experience, a lower downside potential, as well. Look for a long and harrowing contest.