With the North Carolina and Indiana primaries now behind us, what do we know about the race for the White House? The answer is, a lot more than we knew on Tuesday morning.
What we have suspected for weeks we now have had essentially confirmed -- that the fall election for president will be a race between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama. Obama -- finally -- all but closed the deal by winning the North Carolina primary convincingly, and by nearly winning in Indiana. Even after her double-digit win in the Pennsylvania primary election two weeks ago, it was clear New York Senator Hillary Clinton needed to have very strong performances in Indiana and North Carolina this week. That didn't happen.
It was appropriate that the nomination race would essentially conclude in North Carolina, the home of the famous "four corners" offense perfected in the 1960s and 1970s by Tarheels college basketball coach Dean Smith. That offense, which was employed by Smith's championship teams after they built early leads in games, was essentially designed to run out the clock by spreading his players out into the corners of the basketball floor and passing the ball back and forth until time ran out.
Building a lead and then sitting on it was the whole idea.
We know Obama likes basketball and I wouldn't be surprised to learn he was a big fan of North Carolina basketball. His campaign this year would make Dean Smith proud. After building an early lead, Obama has simply held on until the clock finally ran out on Hillary Clinton.
For all the polling, campaign appearances, television ads and media hype, the bottom-line numbers in the race have barely changed in recent weeks. Though momentum in the Democratic race has swung back and forth, Obama has maintained a small lead in both convention delegates and the popular vote nationwide.
That is not to say the race has not changed the political fundamentals on the ground. Much has changed. The Barack Obama once seen as a glimmering political statue, the human embodiment of hope, change and promise is no more. That image is long gone, corroded by the caustic sermons of a now-former preacher, a neighbor with a terrorist past, an impertinent comment to San Francisco liberals, and a lapel occasionally devoid of a flag pin.
For a time, Obama became just another politician, exchanging charges and counter charges with Clinton, even running negative ads that he once decried as part of an old style of politics that he was running to end. It was inevitable that he would encounter such difficulty, because he was running, after all, against a woman who is widely considered one of the smartest and one of the toughest, with a husband to match.
His knuckles scraped and his body bruised, Obama kept fighting, and he emerged Wednesday morning with every reason to believe his nomination battle was ending and his general election fight for the White House was beginning. In his victory speech Tuesday night, he even took a swipe at Republican rival John McCain. And, at times in that speech, he even sounded a bit like the Obama of old - more hopeful and more optimistic.
Finally, Obama's got his groove back.
Not that all his problems will go away now that he has the nomination all but locked up. The controversies that dogged him in the primaries will still haunt him in the general election. But now that he has weathered them once, it makes him more able to handle them again. Someone once said that the best training a U.S. president can get for the job is running a campaign to get the job. With his short resume in Washington, this is particularly true in Obama's case.
North Carolina was very good to Obama on Tuesday, but he is far from being crowned America's next political king. There is much more voting to occur before a coronation takes place. And, in a land where the process to select the next leader lasts longer than any other, the end of one election season simply signals the beginning of another.
It's time to reset the clock and have another jump ball. Obama will notice that this next arena will be bigger and the crowd will be more supportive -- and vocal -- for both teams. But for Obama, the biggest challenge will be to transition out of his "stall" offense and actually try to score some points. The four corners offense doesn't work if you don't first have a lead.