Despite Sen. Hillary Clinton's solid victory in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, her chances of winning the nomination must still be considered remote. The Democratic primary campaign is thus moving into a final and potentially dicey stage that will require the full range of skills possessed by Sen. Barack Obama and his campaign.
The task at hand for Mr. Obama is as simple to define as it will be tough to execute: He must deftly manage Mrs. Clinton's departure from the race. To borrow a line from Joe Klein's Bill Clinton-inspired fictional presidential candidate in Primary Colors, it has to be handled just right. Mr. Obama's electoral fate this November depends on it. Unfortunately for him, Mrs. Clinton's achievement this week, and the modicum of momentum she is likely to gain from it, will make this an even more difficult challenge.
After the exhilarating and sometimes frustrating spectacle of the protracted battle between the two Democrats, it's hard to believe we have reached this point. A year ago - heck, even five months ago - Mrs. Clinton's nomination was generally viewed as certain. Compounding the jarring effect of her transformation from inevitable winner into underachieving runner-up is the lost opportunity of her nomination as a potentially historic moment.
The combined effect will make Mrs. Clinton's defeat a tougher pill to swallow - for her, for her supporters and for other key elements of the Democratic coalition, especially women, who cast a majority of votes in the country and an even larger share of Democratic votes.
Had Mrs. Clinton been a long-shot candidate with a limited following who fell far short and quickly slinked away - think Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. or Sen. Christopher J. Dodd - her defeat wouldn't matter all that much.
But we're not even talking here about Al Gore managing Bill Bradley or John Kerry dealing with Howard Dean. We're talking about Hillary - former first lady, first woman to make a strong bid for a major-party nomination for president, such an iconic figure that she is known by her first name alone. And so, Team Obama will need to manage her transition from pathbreaker to runner-up with the delicate care of a watchmaker and the cool precision of a bomb squad.
For starters, Mr. Obama might consider making Mrs. Clinton the keynote speaker at this summer's Democratic National Convention. (Offering her the role of the nominating speaker would be a terrible insult akin to asking her to stay around and sweep up the confetti and balloons.) Though she wouldn't be the first female keynoter - Congresswoman Barbara Jordan and Texas Gov. Ann Richards delivered the 1976 and 1988 keynote speeches, respectively - it would still be a huge moment for Mrs. Clinton, for a variety of reasons.
One, it would allow her to set the tone not just for the election season to follow but for the policy agenda that a President Obama would bring to office. It would demonstrate that Mr. Obama is neither a sore winner nor threatened by her grabbing the spotlight from him in a significant (albeit temporary) way this August in Denver. And it would give Mrs. Clinton the historical opportunity to eclipse her husband, who gave a disastrous, long-winded opening night address at the 1988 convention in Atlanta.
Then there are the deal-making possibilities. Some in Washington whisper that Mrs. Clinton might someday aspire to move up the ranks in the Senate to become the first female majority leader. Mr. Obama could promise privately that, if elected, he would act as a broker with his former colleagues on her behalf. (There is even some buzz about Mr. Obama appointing Mrs. Clinton to the Supreme Court.)
Beyond convention bouquets and backroom deals, and the traditional routine of hiring some of Mrs. Clinton's campaign advisers and staffers, Mr. Obama may also need to let her out of a promise she's been making the past two months. When asked whether the nomination battle will leave the Democrats divided in November, both Mrs. Clinton and her husband have assured Democrats they will work hard and do whatever they can to help elect Mr. Obama.
Let's be real: The Clintons may do no harm, but they are not going to do everything in their power to help elect Mr. Obama. In the end, what Mr. Obama will need to do is allow the Clintons to slip quietly into the night, with his thanks and their dignity, as the dawn of a post-Clinton era approaches.
Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.