The Super Tuesday elections could answer the core political question that vexes Democrats.
Does the public rejection of Bush conservatism offer a rare opportunity for Democrats to run an outsider who can recruit new supporters and score a decisive victory?
Or have economic and foreign-policy woes stoked a malaise that favors no party, incumbent or opposition, and leaves voters gloomily deciding another tight presidential race?
In other words, is this a year when voters will bear down or lift up?
Hillary Rodham Clinton urges Democrats to make the responsible choice. Now is the time to rebuff feel-good symbolism in favor of experience and the "change we need," as her campaign motto intones.
Barack Obama tells Democrats it's not enough to cleanse the White House of a corrupt incumbent party that abused the rule of law.
To truly end this nasty stretch of American politics, the public must unite to upend Washington's entire partisan culture.Today their appeals will be tested for the general election.
The nomination contest is technically a delegate fight, but not all delegates are created equal.
Decent candidates must win their own states, for example, so Clinton practically begins with a 79-delegate edge, since her home turf of New York is bigger than Obama's in Illinois.
She is also well-positioned for 477 delegates in the other two largest states -- New Jersey and California -- so the media "expectations" run high for a Clinton delegate lead.
But primary victories there are not necessarily indicative of strength in the general election. After all, losing Democratic nominees routinely win New York and California by wide margins. In reality, the best indicators of the Democrats' general election prospects are tucked away in the remaining 18 states, each of which has fewer than 100 delegates a pop.
The true potential of Clinton's and Obama's candidacies faces the most consequential test in key swing states such as Missouri, Colorado and Arizona.
President Bush took Missouri by about 200,000 votes last cycle and won the other two by about 100,000 votes. Most Democrats want a nominee who can make up those gaps.
Clinton has proven to be a strong candidate when competing in a traditional Democratic electorate. Exit polls showed her victories were demographically deep in New Hampshire and Nevada.
While she may not have gotten much credit for rallying the base in the swing state of Nevada, the fact is that she clobbered Obama among Democrats by a solid 12 points. (He made up the rest of his support from independents.) Yet when turnout is up, Clinton goes down.
Obama won the two state contests with the highest record turnout: the Iowa caucuses and the South Carolina primary.
The youth vote tripled in both states, bolstering Obama's victories, and South Carolina saw higher participation in the Democratic primary than in its Republican counterpart for the first time since 1992. Those new voters came out of the woodwork of a red state to back Obama, who won every age group under 65.
If he can reproduce that kind of mobilization in the key, non-coastal states today, Democrats will know that the road to the White House is paved with post-partisanship.
After all, primary performance is still the most tangible trial run for determining who can mobilize voters for the general election. Polls and pundits are useless, as this season has already shown, and every candidate claims to be most "electable." Instead, it pays to look at who is already motivating new voters in the few states that matter. If they vote for you in a primary, they'll come back in November.
That's one reason why the only state that went from red to blue in the last presidential cycle was New Hampshire.
Democrats spent months finding and mobilizing new supporters there for a hotly contested primary, won by John F. Kerry, and they turned out again in November.
Bottom line: Tuesday's "delegate winner" could actually be the less electable candidate, if the winner's support comes from the coasts.