Democrats write the GOP campaign plan

It’s far too early to make predictions about the potentially ruinous impact on Democratic Party hopes caused by the increasingly acrimonious struggle between senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. But if this thing drags on much longer, it is entirely possible that the eventual winner will be facing a Republican loaded with ammunition the Democrats helped provide.

At the moment, the odds favor Obama but Clinton has made it clear she is in the fight until the end of the primary season in June. That may or may not be the case depending on the outcome of the Pennsylvania voting next month. If she should fail to score heavily there, the pressures on her to quit the race would be enormous. But the more serious question for the party is what she and her still influential former president husband do after that.

The residue of bitterness that would remain could be a serious threat to Obama’s hopes of becoming the first African American to occupy the White House. It is one thing to offer a gesture of support and quite another to actually give it with any passion. Both Clintons could opt out of actively campaigning, Bill pursuing projects centered on his library in Arkansas and Hillary throwing herself into her job as senator from New York and working essentially only for the election of congressional candidates.

Why would they do that? Well, there are campaigns and then there are knock down, drag outs and the current race is increasingly the latter.

The two candidates obviously don’t like each other much and both accuse the other of what Obama supporter New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson recently called gutter politics, a remark aimed at the Clintons that may come back to haunt the party. The inimitable James Carville promptly called Richardson, a former Clinton administration Cabinet member, a Judas — appropriately on Easter weekend — and refused to apologize.

The resentment of those supporting Clinton and of the couple themselves has become more and more evident. Hillary Clinton believes she has been treated roughly by both the media and a novice first-term senator who seems to constantly impugn her experience and motives in the most personal terms, questioning her and her husband’s dedication to such issues as civil rights despite their long support of minority causes. Her resentment has built with allegations that she has lied about the depth of her experience while little has been said about Obama’s disingenuous claims about his role in key legislation during his few years in the Senate.

When caught in an utter exaggeration of a visit “under fire” to Bosnia, her response reflected her growing anger and frustration. “So what. I made a mistake,” she said, without uttering the “get lost” that was obvious in her demeanor.

There are those who argue that this sort of internecine struggle is not necessarily unhealthy, that it stimulates interest and excitement. They point to record numbers of voters in the primaries and contend that Obama has managed to draw heavy support from independents and disaffected Republicans.

That may be but there is visible anger and disappointment among female voters who believe that once again, women’s issues are being pushed aside as less important than racial considerations. Hillary Clinton’s quietly demurring to take a major role in an Obama campaign but not in stumping for congressional candidates would send an unambiguous message to her supporters.

Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, having all but had his nomination certified by the Republican convention, is quite obviously taking copious notes as the battle rages. The shots the two Democrats take at one another offer him a blueprint. The prevailing wisdom is that he and his fellow Republicans would rather run against Clinton. But that is not necessarily the case. What McCain offers is solid, proven experience and a penchant for being his own man on key issues, often reaching out to moderates and even liberals. That contrasts sharply with Obama, who is almost 30 years younger and without significant political accomplishment to back up all the promises he makes so glibly.

Does he have more charisma, an ingredient that often counts more than substance? Of course he does.

But if the Clintons take a hike and the press focuses its attention full time on him, it could do serious damage to his aspirations. It would help his cause if these two liked each other somewhat. They might be able to team up on the same ticket. That doesn’t seem to be the case. But then what’s that about politics and strange bedfellows?

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)