Obama Wins; How Does Clinton Lose?

Barack Obama is, by almost every measure and by almost every unmeasurable impression, on the precipice of being able to declare victory and have his declaration be accepted by the media and his party. Hillary Clinton needed to find a way to give superdelegates their "Holy Moly" moment, and she failed. Absent an extraordinary intervening event, the question for Hillary Clinton now is how she ends the race. Obama has made it clear that he will not pressure her. It's her decision.

OBAMA's MARGIN in North Carolina was three times that of Clinton's, even before the margin in Indiana narrowed. He earned more pledged delegates than she did. They're likely to see it as a vindication of their gut feeling that Obama could survive the roughest weeks of his candidacy. There is no evidence that Obama's supporters were any less enthusiastic than they were before -- and that metric, more than anything else, I think, will drive their calculations going forward. The uncommitted superdelegates are inclined to like Obama and dislike Clinton personally; they see more energy on his side than hers; they've given him the benefit of the doubt over and over again.

MAY 20 -- THAT'S the date when the campaign unofficially expects to "clinch" the nomination -- when they'll officially have a majority of pledged delegates, which triggers, in their view, the standard for superdelegate decision-making set by party leaders like Nancy Pelosi. I expect -- and the Obama campaign expects -- to see the pace of his superdelegate pick-ups increase. They expect a few superdelegate defections from Clinton as well. Within the next few weeks, Obama might well pass Clinton in the number of superdelegate endorsements. Remember, though: the superdelegates are followers. They're politically wimpy... and they like to be wooed.

EXPECT OBAMA in the next few days to prize unity above all else -- and to turn his attention away from Clinton and towards the notion of a unified Democratic Party and the race against McCain. The Clinton campaign will limp to West Virginia with just enough energy and barely any money. The campaign will point to the DNC rules committee meeting on 5/31, but DNC officials tell me that the staff recommendation provided to the committee -- a recommendation that has so far been kept secret -- is not unambiguously favorable to Clinton's interpretation of the rules.

IN RETROSPECT, the decision of Clinton to contest North Carolina and give Obama an expectations victory was costly, although many analysts, including this one, believed -- still believe -- that in order for her to really give superdelegates that moment of terror, she had to upset Obama in a state where the demographics favored him. Bill Clinton parked himself in the research triangle, Clinton herself hinted about game-changing expectations, the campaign sent their best state director, Ace Smith, as a sign of their confidence in being able to reduce the margins. To be sure, there were plenty of Clinton aides who tried to damp down expectations. Daivd Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, tells me that he is open to negotiating a solution to the Florida and Michigan impasse; he would not tip his negotiating hand.

THE OBAMA CAMPAIGN professes not to be worried about the hardening edges between Clinton's universe of supporters and Obama's universe of supporters. But they concede that reintregrating Clinton supporters in the party will be more difficult than in ordinary cycles. At the highest levels of the Obama campaign, there is no appetite for any talk of a unity ticket so far. Still, big victories in West Virginia and Kentucky will help Clinton make the argument that she is indispensable.