Hillary v. Barack on “Fundraising Primary”: Who Cares? — Nobody, Except for Dick Morris, Maybe

So the pundit spin machines became almost caricatures of themselves: Senator Clinton “lost” the first primary on fundraising in the first quarter, raising “just” $26 million to Senator Obama’s $25 million.

But wait: Isn’t $26 million higher than $25 million? According to Dick Morris, Chris Matthews and a number of other Hillary Clinton non-fans, it’s not higher enough —given the “expectations” that she would do much better and Senator Obama would do much worse.

Clearly that’s true – she didn’t meet the pundits’ expectations (and clearly some in her campaign were impressed by how well Senator Obama did). But just keep in mind the following fact: Winning the expectations game is virtually impossible for Senator Clinton, no matter how well she does.

I know — you see, I worked for Senator Muskie in 1972. He “lost” the March 1972 New Hampshire primary over Senator McGovern (I believe by 47 percent for Senator Muskie to 38 percent for Senator McGovern, or something close to that). Huh? No — that’s correct. The national media had set an “expectation” that Senator Muskie, from neighboring Maine, must win over 50 percent of the vote or it would be a “loss.” And Senator Muskie’s state campaign coordinator, a great lady named Maria Carrier, actually said a few weeks before the primary (I am not making this up), “I’ll kill myself if Senator Muskie doesn’t get over 50 percent in the primary.” He didn’t — and she didn’t.

So, it seems, Senator Clinton faces the same political punditry whose self-interest is in creating the same kind of upside-down mathematics — you lose when you win if you don’t meet our expectations. You can imagine that pre-written headlines, perhaps drafted months ago (at least psychologically), were rolled out as soon as Senator Obama reported his results: “Obama Exceeds Expectations, Hillary Not As Far Ahead as Expected.”

So, putting aside this bogus game of raised expectations, here are the only real facts we know about how the candidates are doing:

Senator Clinton’s national poll standings still show her as the most popular Democrat nationally by a large margin. Here are the results of the USA Today/Gallup poll, comparing March 4, 2007 to March 25, 2007:

March 4:
Clinton, 36 percent
Obama, 22 percent
Gore, 18 percent
Edwards, 9 percent

March 25:
Clinton 35 percent
Obama, 22 percent
Gore, 17 percent
Edwards, 14 percent

But in Iowa, the same poll showed that it is John Edwards who is “ahead,” and in New Hampshire Senator Clinton is ahead.

And does any of this matter?

No.

But one conclusion is safe: It is too early to care about these poll results as an indication of who will be the likely Democratic nominee; and certainly who will win the early primaries. And don’t forget New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who, while still not showing significant numbers in the national polls, has a resume that is impressive, both in foreign policy and domestic policy; and in the case of the former, clearly superior to Senator Obama’s and former Senator Edwards’s.

And here is a prediction that is also safe: This will be the least divisive Democratic contest for the nomination in the last 40 years.

We Democrats have great candidates who agree on virtually every major issue Democrats care about (including the need to get out of Iraq and redeploy according to a responsible timetable), and we will have a united Democratic party after the convention to win back the presidency.

Even a strong Hillary Clinton supporter and active-fund-raiser such as this writer should give Senator Obama his fundraising organization their due.

In less than three months the first-term senator has shown himself to be a credible and impressive presidential candidate. This is so not just because he raised $25 million in such a short period of time, without having previously developed a serious national base of fundraisers and donors. To me, more significantly, it is because of his core message that has, without question, a powerful generational appeal — especially among 20- and 30-somethings, as I have personally witnessed repeatedly in the last several months.

As I discern it, perhaps over-simplistically, that message is: “It’s time for a new generation of leadership and a new politics that rejects the hyper-partisan, ‘gotcha’ politics of the past” — that gave Senator Obama over 100,000 individual donors, many from the Internet, reportedly twice that of Senator Clinton. And that is a great start — no doubt about it — for Senator Obama, since it suggests that there will be repeat donors in the next quarters for the same reasons, much as Howard Dean demonstrated in 2004.

But at some point, Senator Obama will begin to be defined by the “beef” behind that message — his specific stands on the issues, his vision for solving America’s problems with concrete proposals. But that is the challenge for every other candidate, too.

We Democrats need to ignore the expectations game that it is in the interest of pundits to play to keep interest and the ratings (and possibly campaign travel expense accounts) as high as possible. And instead, keep our eyes on the big picture challenge for our party:

The Democratic Party is well positioned to take back the White House in November 2008. But now it is time to start to begin to talk to the country affirmatively and concretely what our program is on the issues that matter most.

Issues and ideas will not only be necessary to win back the White House — they are necessary to reshape the Democratic Party to govern for the next generation.

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