Suspense not so bad for primary

The Baltimore Sun

If this is a marathon, surely we're approaching the last uphill. Long past any endorphin high, we're now into the oxygen-depleted, brain-benumbed, shin-splinting part of the race. But the finish line remains out of sight - in fact, it appears to be moving farther away rather than closer with every painful step.

Welcome to the Democratic presidential primary, the race that apparently is never going to end but will just keep going, and going and going - who knows, past the general election in November, past inauguration day in January.

Today, it's Pennsylvania's turn to be "critical," "decisive," "a battleground." Not to be confused, of course, with Texas and Ohio, the previously critical, decisive and battleground states that were going to settle the matter of the Democratic nominee once and for all. Which they only had to do, of course, because the Super Tuesday states, all two dozen or so of them, couldn't be critical or decisive or battleground-y enough to give us a victor.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama: together forever in one of those locked-up positions wrestlers get into, neither one on top, neither one budging.

It's awful, everyone says. Pundits are running out of new things to say. The superdelegates are drawing things out too long. The party leaders are worrying that the internecine warfare will leave the nominee too bloody to face the real opposition in November.

Oh, it's just terrible, I agree: It's just too much democracy.

Too many voters are getting a say in who will be the nominee, and too many states are having primaries that actually matter. The candidates are having to endure too many debates and make too many campaign appearances. They don't just have to marvel at the butter sculpture at the Iowa State Fair or correctly pronounce frappe in New Hampshire, but they have put on sombreros in Los Angeles and bowl in Pennsylvania. They have to answer tough questions and explain themselves - not just once, not just in time for the evening news, but over and over in a news cycle that never stops refreshing itself.

Dreadful. Who wants to see that?

Who wants to see how candidates handle themselves over the long haul? Who wants to see them not just make the inevitable gaffes, but how they handle them, gracefully or defensively?

Who? People like the nearly half-million new voters who have registered to cast ballots in the Democratic primaries in Pennsylvania, Indiana and North Carolina, joining the hordes who have similarly been inspired in states that had earlier contests. The numbers of newly registered voters are nothing short of astonishing, particularly among the 18- to 29-year-olds. Several states have reported triple the number of young people voting in this year's primaries as did in 2000.

Who else? How about the more than 10 million people who tuned in to watch the April 16 debate in Pennsylvania on ABC, more than for any of the other seemingly endless talkathons that the candidates have had during the primary season. Oh, sure, not everyone stuck with the debate; some of the 11.8 million viewers tuning in early on eventually drifted off, either because they got tired of waiting for the questions to move beyond flag pins and Jeremiah Wright, or because American Idol came on, or, likely, both.

Who could have scripted such a primary? It began with an inevitable nominee - Clinton - who proved inevitable only until the first voters got to have their say, in Iowa, which went for Obama. Suddenly, he was inevitable, drawing arena-sized crowds and raising millions of dollars overnight - until the second set of voters got their say, in New Hampshire.

It's been like that all season, a back-and-forth volley, with neither candidate able to deliver that game-over blow. I've lost count of how many times I've heard this is a must-win state for one or the other candidate, only to hear the next morning that, well, he or she can still pull it off. The other day, I started to worry about both of them: Clinton's voice seemed to come from somewhere beyond her strained vocal chords; Obama seemed to have crossed from sleek-thin to feed-me-thin.

And yet it's far from over. After Pennsylvania, there are seven more states, plus Puerto Rico. And even as those voters get their chances, there's the other contest going on at the same time - for the superdelegates who, it's been obvious for a while, are going to be the ones who will have to decide this thing.

We've finally come full circle, reality has become a reality show: We vote, but it's the likes of Simon, Paula and Randy - or rather, Al (Gore), Donna (Brazile) and Martin (O'Malley) - who have the final say.

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