Endorsements Do Matter ... Sometimes
In the Democratic race, while Clinton has locked up support of many party regulars, Obama is gaining ground and clearly has managed to sell his unity message to key elements of a party famous for its food fights. The backing of Sen. Edward Kennedy today was a stunner. It was both the passing of a torch of inspiration and hope from Kennedy's slain brothers to Obama and a rebuke of the Clintons and their attacks on Obama. It's all the more significant because Kennedy has a tradition of staying out of primary fights.
But equally important, Obama isn't just drawing the support of party liberals. He has won the nod from conservative Democrats -- most notably Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska -- for much the same reason that Kennedy cited when announcing his support: Obama's call for America to unite behind its ideals and to abandon politics of division, be it along lines of race, ideology, partisanship or class.
What about the Republicans? Endorsements could signal how much of a dogfight the party really faces. Watch movement by conservatives and party leaders who backed losers in the race or have yet to back anyone. For example, Sen. John McCain's willingness to work across the aisle and his support for campaign finance reform and comprehensive immigration reform earned him the suspicion -- ranging from deep distrust to slight misgivings -- of many Republican leaders. Does the mistrust run deep enough and wide enough to derail the candidate whom polls show to be the Republican with the best chance of beating either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton?
Keep a close eye on conservatives who endorsed former Sen. Fred Thompson (the antiabortion National Right to Life Committee, for example),Thompson himself and Rudy Giuliani (who will effectively be out of the race after a likely drubbing in Florida Tuesday). If a large number of prominent backers declare for Mitt Romney or -- less likely -- for Mike Huckabee, it will be an indication that a large number of conservatives simply can't and won't forgive McCain for his maverick streak. But if support splinters behind McCain, Romney and Huckabee or if conservatives stay mum, it would mean resistance is dying down and inevitability is taking hold.