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The Globe and Mail

Long GOP slog has echoes of Obama-Clinton battle in 2008

Barack Obama speaks as Hillary Rodham Clinton applauds at a campaign event in Unity, N.H. Friday, June 27, 2008, during their first joint public appearance since the divisive Democratic primary race ended.

Elise Amendola/Associated Press/Elise Amendola/Associated Press

This isn't where the Republican establishment wanted to be today.

Instead of a knockout blow by Mitt Romney – seen by GOP leaders as the most electable opponent to Barack Obama – the standings after Super Tuesday speak to the party's prolonged agony. Voters have shown themselves reluctant to gather around the establishment's choice, candidates are trading increasingly vicious barbs and there are fears the party will not be able to bury its divisions before the race for the presidency.

But worried Republicans can take some solace from the fact that these very concerns were being raised four years ago, by their opponents, as Mr. Obama and Hillary Clinton duked it out for their party's nomination. And there is some research indicating that divisive nomination campaigns don't hurt the winning candidate in the subsequent election.

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Four years ago, Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton both picked up victories through January and, after the awarding of disputed primaries was decided, finished the month in a virtual delegate tie. All other contenders had withdrawn or suspended their candidacies by then and the two squared off for Super Tuesday. A massively important day on which a total of 23 states held primaries or caucuses, what was dubbed Super-Duper Tuesday came after nasty exchanges – including what some perceived as Bill Clinton attempting to pigeon-hole Mr. Obama as "the black candidate."

The day finished with both candidates claiming victory and their delegate counts, again, essentially tied. Only one day later, Howard Dean, then-chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was voicing the fears of many in the party when he said they needed to choose a nominee.

"I think we will have a nominee sometime in the middle of March or April. But if we don't, then we're going to have to get the candidates together and make some kind of an arrangement," he said. "Because I don't think we can afford to have a brokered convention – that would not be good news for either party."

Instead of a deal, the candidates went back to war. The rhetoric was ramped up and the media started to take serious looks at the possible damage being done to the party's chances.

In the end, it took until the first week of June before Mr. Obama was judged to have sealed the deal. And although his opponent waited four days before conceding, she threw her support behind him in a fence-mending speech.

"I understand that we all know this has been a tough fight," said Ms. Clinton, who went on to serve in Mr. Obama's administration. "The Democratic Party is a family, and it's now time to restore the ties that bind us together and to come together around the ideals we share, the values we cherish, and the country we love. We may have started on separate journeys – but today, our paths have merged."

The parallels between the current slanging match and the cage-match four years ago can be taken only so far. But with the leading Republican candidate unable to close the deal, there are party fears of a prolonged race, and possibly even the nightmare scenario of the choice being made at the convention in late August.

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"Not only will many of the supporters of the already-declared candidates likely exit the convention hall disappointed, but the supporters of various outside candidates who don't get the nod will also be angry," Sean Trende wrote at RealClearPolitics. "And then the general election campaign starts immediately. It will be difficult enough to put together a coherent campaign in 10 weeks. It may be impossible to do so while also having to heal intra-party rifts."

Mr. Romney has already been trying to paper over the cracks running through the party. After winning Florida in January, he said "A competitive primary does not divide us. It prepares us, and we will win." And he turned his sights on Mr. Obama, saying, "It is time for you to get out of the way."

Campaign trail braggadocio notwithstanding, there is evidence that whomever the Republicans choose may not be hurt by the current battle.

A study by University of New Mexico professor of political science Lonna Rae Atkeson indicates that primary battles have little effect on final election outcome, once factors such as the economy and the incumbent's popularity are taken into account.

Of course, with nearly half of Americans approving of Mr. Obama's performance, a number jumping in January to its highest in six months, and private-sector job creation accelerating in February faster than expected, if the GOP does not win this fall it may be easier for them to blame the bruising primaries.

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