Will the Democrats blow a sure thing?

Historically, the majority party in the U.S. House loses seats following off-year gains. So Democratic leaders began this election season believing that with an unpopular Republican lame duck president, a stalemated war and a faltering economy, they could beat those historic odds dramatically.

They still do. But now that optimism has an asterisk next to it.

Increasingly in the party’s upper echelons there is concern that the protracted struggle between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination will result in a division that could dash their hopes of boosting their numbers and also winning the White House.

Take Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (or “D triple C” as he calls it). During a breakfast session with reporters recently the Maryland congressman’s effort at painting a best-case scenario was more a cautionary tale, punctuated regularly by acknowledgements that success probably depends on overcoming the months of animosity between the two wannabe nominees who seem now on the verge of turning the sniping into an all out blood letting.

“The longer this goes on, the more difficult it may be to heal the wounds,” he said, noting that the key will be the willingness of the loser to help get out the vote and not just “pay lip service” to supporting the winner. Has it gone on too long, he was asked.

“It isn’t the time, it’s the tone,” Van Hollen said. “An earlier resolution would have been better because the tone gets worse the longer it goes.”

He has reason to worry. Clinton supporters in particular seem more likely to turn their backs on the party, angered by perceived piling on by once loyal Clinton supporters who have jumped ship. Following the heated Pennsylvania primary, the press surveys showed that more than a quarter of those voting for Clinton would not support Obama if he were the nominee and two in 10 voters said they would sit out the election.

As the acrimony has mounted with Obama now apparently having decided that he will no longer be Mr. Nice Guy, the specter of a lasting rift looms all the larger. Clinton’s unceasing efforts to paint Obama as not tough enough to handle Republican attacks and questions about his readiness for a job, his associations with a firebrand, racist minister and former violent Vietnam war protestors have taken a toll. After a debate that put him more on the defensive than at any other time during the campaign, he now seems ready to retaliate.

Also the Pennsylvania voting revealed Obama’s weakness among traditional Democratic blue-collar workers, some of who were reacting to charges of elitism stemming from his remarks in San Francisco that appeared to question the sincerity of small town values. The post-primary voting patterns showed that those earning under $50,000 annually voted 54 percent for Clinton. In fact, she led by nearly the same percentage among those making over $50,000 and she actually won 62 percent of the white vote. Obama took 89 percent of the black vote and did well among wealthy white suburbanites. But Clinton’s popularity among those in the upper age ranges offset this.

It is not unusual for Democrats to self destruct, to turn what seemed like a silk purse into a sow’s ear. The most recent example, of course, was Vice President Al Gore’s decision not to seek the help of his boss, President Clinton. It was a key factor in his loosing the election despite a roaring economy. Whether the animosity now growing between the Clinton and Obama camps can be healed in time to effectively counter a unified Republican Party whose conservative members of the base now seems adjusted to John McCain is anyone’s guess. But if one were a betting man, history might dictate placing the money on that not happening.

What about pairing them on the ticket?

“That’s really not necessary to bring the party together,” Van Hollen said emphatically, leaving little doubt that it isn’t something he expects or favors. But as untenable and unrealistic as that may seem now, necessities may dictate otherwise just as they did in 1960 when John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, neither of whom could stand the other, shared a ticket and salvaged a victory because they did.

To paraphrase the song, it’s a longtime from May to November but the days until September, the traditional start of the main event, are shorter than one expects.

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