Clinton's Next Problem

Washington Matters

Clinton's Next Problem

Sandwiched between the good news for Hillary Clinton (her wins kept her campaign alive and stopped the erosion of her base) and the bad news (she has virtually no way to catch up in the race for pledged delegates), is one nagging question  that Clinton must answer for Democratic voters: Who has the best chance of beating John McCain, her or Barack Obama: Despite her victories, a majority of voters in both Ohio and Texas said in exit polls that Obama had the best chance of succeeding in November.

It was that question that helped Obama catch the Clinton campaign flatfooted early in the race. They assumed most voters would perceive her as the strongest challenger to the Republican nominee. But Obama proved in January and February not only that he could win but that he could bring flocks of new voters to the polls, energize  the party and appeal to independents and even some Republicans.

Clinton, on the other hand,  scraped her victories together on the strength of the traditional Democratic base. More importantly, Democrats began to fear that in a year in which Republicans were dispirited and splintered that the one thing that could reinvigorate and unite the GOP was to nominate Clinton, who is simply despised by most conservatives. That worry became even more acute as McCain emerged as the GOP front-runner since he was the only Republican in the pack who consistently drew the backing of independents and some moderate-to-conservative Democrats.

Now that Clinton has momentum and voters' attention again, she clearly has the opportunity to demonstrate that she has the political breadth and characteristics needed to win in November. The trick will be to do so without damaging Obama or herself so badly over the next month or two that she does a good bit of McCain's work for him. And both Obama and Clinton have shown that while they can trade punches with each other, they also can highlight the far sharper differences each of them has with McCain.

That will require both Democrats to voice a consistent and believable  theme of party unity in the middle of a firefight -- a peculiar but not impossible balancing act. Clinton took a surprising step in that direction Wednesday by suggesting the possibility of a unity ticket -- a Democratic dream ticket -- made up of her and Obama,   regardless of who wins the nomination. Very few people have thought that Clinton would ever consider being a second banana to Obama.