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After Pennsylvania, On With the Demolition Derby

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Now it's on Indiana. And North Carolina. And Oregon. And... all the way to Denver late in August? The votes are in from the Keystone State: Hillary Clinton, the once - and future? - Inevitable Nominee now has scored a solid but scarcely decisive victory over another formerly Inevitable Nominee. So the race to mutual exhaustion goes on.

By winning convincingly in Pennsylvania, Senator/Mrs./Comeback Kid Clinton has not won the nomination but the chance to keep on fighting, fighting, fighting for it. Once again she's stopped the Charisma Kid in his well-oiled tracks - but without taking a clear lead herself.

All along, Hillary! has been claiming that Barack Obama was an unknown quality. She said he hadn't been vetted, as the political consultants put it in their awful lingo, the way she has been forever and ever - and don't we know it! Miss Hillary has been vetted so long, to lapse into the colloquial, she's been mighty nigh ruint. Or as the pollsters would say in their grating way, she's got the highest negatives of the three still-standing presidential candidates.

Sen./Tigress Clinton has set out to do the vetting of her Democratic opponent herself - vet him to shreds if she can. And primary after primary, with more than a little help from her rival's miscues, she's succeeding - not necessarily in winning her party's presidential nomination but in seeing to it that, by the time her opponent does, he'll be damaged goods.

This is a Democratic donnybrook only a Republican could love. At one point Hillary Clinton claimed that she and, yes, John McCain were the only candidates in this three-cornered bout that the American people could trust to answer that famous red phone at 3 a.m. As a Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Clinton delivers a pretty good commercial for the Republican one.

What a show. At this wild and woolly point, the campaign for the Democratic nomination has got all the subtlety of the WWE, the delicacy of the NFL, and the refinement of NASCAR. That is, none at all.

Rome had its bread and circuses; this our new Rome has presidential elections. To quote Finley Peter Dooley's sage Irish barkeep and doctor of philosophy, the great Mister Dooley himself, politics ain't beanbag. Of course it isn't; it lacks beanbag's intellectual honesty.

The ever-quotable Mr. Mencken once said nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public, or multisyllabic words to that effect. A cynic could as well say that nobody ever lost a presidential race that way, either.

The challenge now facing Barack Obama in this race is to hit hard and low without seeming to. He'll need to counterpunch with class - not so softly he'll be ineffective, but not so hard that he'll muss his hair and ruin his appeal as a politician above politics.

It'll be a neat trick, maybe an impossible one. He's had the best of educations for it - both upscale Harvard Law and low-down Chicago politics. But how do you win a vicious campaign virtuously? How do you win a presidential nomination without tarnishing it in the process? How do you rip apart your opponent without ripping apart your party?

With each bitter primary, an increasing number of Democrats may believe what both their leading candidates say - about each other.

What started as a political race is becoming a combination grudge match and demolition derby. It'll go on until the usual ceremonial reconciliation at the end, when the contenders kiss and make up nice things to say about each other. But if this Democratic slugfest goes on much longer, the mutual flattery at that point is going to sound even less convincing than it usually does.

Primary by primary, round by round, the wounds open, and it won't be easy to suture them up before the Democrats' less than democratic national convention. That's when the superdelegates, the party's autocrats, will have to decide the issue.

Who said the brokered convention was dead? Only the brokers have changed. Instead of the traditional party bosses picking the winner in some smoked-filled room, the superdelegates will settle things in their own various, and maybe devious, ways. The more things change, the more they remain essentially the same. The smoke may be gone, but the mirrors remain.

Meanwhile, great issues remain to be explored - like the worldwide threat from a fanatical jihadism and how to counter it, and an economy rocking into a recession by some other, more polite name (downturn, slowdown). But where are the great leaders who'll treat those issues as something more than campaign fodder? Will we have to wait till this quadrennial circus is over before an appreciation of reality sets in like a hangover?

They say God looks after fools, drunkards and the United States of America. Let's hope so. But let's do more than hope. America will need to think. And act.

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