McCain scores while Democrats punt

After the smoke cleared, there were still three presidential candidates left standing — two who rose from the dead and one who came out of nowhere.

But Tuesday’s round of primaries that were supposed to settle the race settled it only for John McCain, who locked up the Republican nomination and then went to the White House for a laying-on of hands and an official blessing from President Bush. Given Bush’s popularity ratings, one has to wonder how many more of these joint appearances we’ll be seeing.

It must have been a sweet moment for McCain, whose 2000 presidential hopes were wrecked by a dirty campaign in South Carolina conducted on Bush’s behalf. McCain, who was written off as dead last summer, is now in an enviable position. He can rest, raise money, rouse himself from time to time to snipe at the two surviving Democrats and perhaps even return to his job as U.S. senator.

Not that it would have made a difference, but McCain was left alone in the spotlight when Mike Huckabee withdrew after a crushing loss in Texas. Huckabee was the pleasant surprise of this campaign, a genial, engaging and entertaining politician free of anger and resentment. Genial though he may be, he got off one of the best zingers of the campaign when, comparing himself to Mitt Romney, he said, “Most Americans want their next president to remind them of the guy they work with — not the guy who laid them off.” His political future is up in the air, but he does have one.

The tenacious and resilient Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has arguably suffered three near-death experiences in the course of her campaign, narrowly survived yet again with her wins in Texas and Ohio. She is perhaps the best politician of this generation, all the more remarkable because she is not a natural like her husband.

It was her bad fortune to come up against another natural, Barack Obama, who so inspires his followers that he’s had to tone down his campaign to avoid charges of creating a cult. Until Tuesday, he had seemed to put the race away with 11 straight victories.

Now, unless one yields, they must slog through 12 more contests stretching into early June, with the biggest prize, Pennsylvania, on April 22. And to think: Last year, the politicians, press and political scientists complained that because of Iowa, New Hampshire and a frontloaded primary schedule, the race would be over before most party voters had had their say.

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