WASHINGTON — On the day last week when Hillary Clinton suffered the first of two costly defections by Indiana superdelegates, I went to see an old friend working in her national campaign. I knew he was loyal to her, but I also calculated that if he were guaranteed anonymity, he would give me an honest answer to the vexing question: Does the Clinton camp still see any realistic way she can deny Barack Obama the Democratic nomination without blowing up the party?
The question is not new, but it has gained force week by week, as the ranks of uncommitted delegates dwindle and the remaining number of primaries and caucuses shrinks. When Rep. Baron Hill, a freshman holding a battleground seat in southern Indiana, ended months of neutrality and endorsed Obama, without waiting until Tuesday to let his constituents vote, it signaled bad news for Clinton, not just in the primary but in the overall fight.
It got worse for her the next day when Joe Andrew, a former Indiana and national Democratic chairman under Bill Clinton, announced that he was switching to Obama, in part because the long-drawn-out contest is so divisive to the party.
How then does Clinton hope to win? Her fate rests entirely on the last uncommitted superdelegates, the roughly 75 members of Congress and 150 party officials who have not picked sides.
All of them have been wooed intensively by both Clinton and Obama. If the race goes on another week, I will report more about the case Obama supporters are making to the superdelegates. But for now, let me describe Clinton’s imagined course to the nomination.
To have a chance, the Clinton folks figure, she must win Indiana on Tuesday and do well enough to keep Obama’s lead by the end of the primaries closer to 100 than to 200. She must also find a way to get some votes counted from Michigan and Florida, whose delegations are barred from the convention for violating the party’s primary timetable.
Then the superdelegates would have their moment. The first thing my Clinton friend noted about them is that, over the past two months, their conversations have shifted from a fascination with the rush of young people onto the voting rolls, benefiting Obama, to a focus on older voters and Catholics, who have broken heavily for Clinton in Pennsylvania, Ohio and other states vital to Democratic chances of assembling an Electoral College majority.
Second, he said, the Jeremiah Wright affair and other recent incidents have reminded the uncommitted how little they really know about Obama — including his ability to deal with political crises, real or manufactured. Clinton has plenty of scars from past battles that weaken her compared to Obama, but the uncommitted have seen her demonstrate repeatedly that she has the will to survive and fight back.
Those two factors have begun to change some superdelegates’ minds about the candidate they want to see nominated. But, as my friend acknowledged, they have not yet overcome the deep discomfort many of them feel, as they contemplate taking the nomination away from Obama. They know that would break the hearts of his African-American supporters, who have been the most loyal of Democratic constituencies.
Speaking from a lifetime of experience, my friend said that under other circumstances, African-Americans would show their love for Hillary Clinton (if not so much now for her husband). But at the moment, they see her only as a threat to knock out their favorite.
If the superdelegates should decide to take the risk and cast their lot with Clinton, how would she be able to heal the wounds of a fight to the finish with Obama?
The Clinton camp’s answer comes in two parts. First, they say that the institutional party — the unions, the environmental groups, the abortion-rights groups and others who are desperate for victory after losing twice to George Bush and who recognize the potential appeal of John McCain — would exert heavy pressure on the losing side not to sulk or erupt.
And second, the Clinton camp hopes that, if he is counted out, Obama, just 46, would think about his long-term future and secure his own status as heir apparent by reconciling his followers to a bitter but temporary defeat and by throwing all his energies behind Clinton.
In effect, my friend was saying that may well be beyond Clinton’s power to win the nomination without severely damaging the party. Only Obama can make her winning seem right.
David Broder is a Washington Post columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.