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Ninth Inning Rallies and Jumping Sharks: The Democratic Primary Enters The Final Stretch

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It ain't over till it's over.

Yogi Berra may not have had Hillary Clinton in mind when he uttered those immortal words, yet they seem as accurate a way to describe this year's Democratic jockeying to the White House as any other, unpredictable American pastime.

At the moment, once again, Hillary has no chance. Barely six weeks have passed since the last time Hillary had no chance in the days leading up to the New Hampshire primary: a short period on the calendar, but an eternity in any presidential campaign, let alone this one. There can be no doubt that Obama's sweep since Super Tuesday has been impressive (all the more so because of whom he swept, and by how much), and yet when I read endless accounts about Obama's momentum, and listen to the pundits do their math and shake their heads about Hillary's chances (is it thirty percent now?) I can't help but recall the night before the New Hampshire primary when I, along with every other media type crowded into the tiny state that week, rushed to get to the New Hampshire airport where Hillary (and Bill and Chelsea) was conducting a final rally that at the time was being referred to as the "Last Supper." Ah, yes. This was just twenty-four hours before she resurrected herself once again. Don't we at least know by now how little we know.

Of course, over the past two weeks, Obama's victories, coupled with Hillary's campaign shake-up, and well publicized money troubles have succeeded in making a Clinton nomination look a lot less likely. Lest we forget, however, that there are another two weeks ahead of us before the March 4 primaries in Texas and Ohio (Clinton's firewall in campaign speak), two long weeks that leave plenty of room for heretofore unimagined story lines (such as, say, charges of plagiarism -- did anyone see that coming?)

To be sure, Obama is now, suddenly, the one who has to worry about screwing it up; such is the yoke a front-runner must bear. Whatever glare he's been feeling up until this point from the media (and with very little exception, Obama has received the kind of adulation normally reserved for conquering heroes, or at least rock stars) is about to increase tenfold. Hillary on the other hand -- who, it could be pointed out, has never experienced real adulation of any sort in her lifetime as a public figure -- now just has to worry about staying in the game (and perhaps keeping a lid on Bill) and there is a case to be made that being down and out is the easiest and quickest way for her to engender a sympathy in the voters her public persona is always struggling to inspire (think New Hampshire tears writ large).

There is also the larger question of whether the voting masses (and relatively speaking, they are masses), once it is afforded a full and extended dose of the Senator from Illinois, will remain as excited about the prospect of an Obama presidency. Despite being a phrase that is rarely applied in politics, I think Obama is risking being too much of a good thing. Between the Oprah endorsement and the Kennedy endorsement and the YouTube video, which, after a few days of endless viewing made Obama's subsequent speeches seem simultaneously old hat and bordering on parody (with the end of the writer's strike, can an SNL version can't be far behind?) one wonders much perfectly scripted "inspiration" a person can take before they begin to get a sneaking suspicion they may be participating in some sort of Dr. Phil goes to Washington infomercial?

Up until recently it's been hard to seriously criticize Obama without appearing to be the worst kind of cynic. And really, what's not to like? Hollywood could not have dreamed up a more magical, inspiring, and unlikely response to eight demoralizing years of George W. Bush.

And yet.

There is a phrase in television-land for what happens in the aftermath of the sort of perfect storm of storylines Obama has recently experienced (and really, can a politician wish for a better primary season denouement than the marriage of the Kennedys and Oprah?). It is called "jumping the shark." And it's what happens when, having achieved the penultimate, the story, in an effort to stay afloat and on the public radar, veers into the ridiculous (the reference originates from a scene in Happy Days when the Fonz literally jumps a shark, on water skies, in his leather jacket). One suspects that if Obama isn't very careful in the next two weeks to separate himself from phrases like "cult of personality" and "momentum candidate" and provide a more, dare we say it, pedantic version of himself, we may witness him inspiring the sort of derision that is only possible when the public has been lifted so high the only place for them, or the candidate in this case, to go is down, at much the same speed with which they and he rose. Perfection is not a sustainable resource, after all. Hillary may not have the language (though, apparently neither does Obama), but she inspires the kind of mundane confidence that voters, once they adjust to the idea of Obama as a reality beyond the movement, may prefer.

Time will tell.

What is for certain, however, is that these next two weeks, whatever they may hold, shall pass, along with (at some point) this primary season. And a by the end of this campaign -- whatever the jumps or leaps, or last minute surprises it holds -- the candidate the Democratic party ends up with will require a brand new, large and sturdy bandwagon to carry it through to November.

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