If You Want to Crown Him...

First, the numbers.

Democratic Primary
Hillary Clinton 51%
Barack Obama 49%

North Carolina
Democratic Primary
Barack Obama 56%
Hillary Clinton 42%

So who's up, who's down, who's out?

Who's Up?

Barack Obama

Boy oh boy, did Obama need a night like this. Yes, it was a split, so it's not the clear coup de grace that the Obama campaign was hoping for, but it was unquestionably the next best thing. After the week Obama had, and given where the polls were sitting this morning, it looked entirely possible that Obama would eke out a narrow win in North Carolina and get blown out in Indiana -- a result that would have put him in serious jeopardy of losing the nomination. Instead, he blows Clinton out in North Carolina, runs strong in Indiana, gains back all but 4,000 of the popular votes he lost in Pennsylvania, and likely clinches the nomination.

Obama's strategy to win has been simple: win more delegates than Clinton does. Tonight, he'll end up netting ~10 delegates, erasing the hit he took in Pennsylvania two weeks ago. Moreover, almost half the delegates left on the board going into tonight are off the board now. To achieve his objective, Obama only has to tie Clinton the rest of the way. And he's at least doing that.

Obama's victory speech was also his best address in the past month.

He sounded very much back on his game, very much the man who built a big delegate lead in the first place. Gone was the tired Obama of the past few weeks -- this was Obama in fighting form, calling out John McCain for the next scrap, while still managing to turn his own imperfections into a positive. It was Obama at his best.

Obama answered the questions he had to answer tonight. He can take a punch and remain competitive, he can get buried by a week of nonstop Jeremiah Wright coverage and still meet expectations. That's good for Obama. It's bad for his chief rival.

Who's Down

Hillary Clinton

Two weeks ago, after her win in Pennsylvania, I wrote:
She can’t overcome Obama’s lead in pledged delegates, and she isn’t going to. But she can still try to talk superdelegates into supporting her, and frankly, her central argument — that Obama will struggle with working-class white Dems, and this will cost him the election — got a boost tonight. And it is the strength of that argument that will determine Clinton’s fate.
That remains Clinton's path to the nomination. But that argument was dealt a severe blow tonight, one that probably ends any realistic chance of her winning the nomination.

Because Clinton's chances are predicated on an intangible metric -- momentum -- her viability as a candidate is susceptible to the vagaries of the expectations game. A couple weeks ago, after Pennsylvania, tonight's result would probably have been viewed as a draw, maybe a slight victory for Obama overall. But in the intervening weeks, Obama went through arguably the worst period of his campaign, with Clinton very much on the offensive and Jeremiah Wright forcing further renouncing and denouncing -- and Obama didn't lose any appreciable support. The fact that polls this morning seemed to augur a bigger win for Clinton in Indiana than for Obama in North Carolina adds to the mix, and makes Obama's victory tonight look perhaps bigger than it is.

Now, Clinton supporters can say that isn't fair, and perhaps it isn't. But she doesn't have a choice but to make her stand on momentum -- and the media narrative tonight is that momentum belongs to the skinny kid with the funny name. One need only look to the ruler of the world of the MSM, Matt Drudge, to see that the media is calling this contest decisively for Obama. And that will make it next to impossible for Clinton to persuade superdelegates that she's still a reasonable alternative choice.

Does this mean Clinton must step aside, now, for the good of everyone but her? Absolutely not. Frankly, for the Democrats, it doesn't much matter whether she does or doesn't. We're just four weeks from the end of the primary season, and I strongly suspect that we'll know who the nominee is by June 4 no matter what. Four weeks won't make or break this election. No, Clinton will have to decide for herself whether she's got anything left to play for, or whether it's time to fold up the tents and focus on her career in the Senate.

That decision is hers, and hers alone, and there's no need at this late date to hustle Hillary off the stage just before the final curtain falls. I've always believed that if Clinton reached a point where it was no longer in her or the party's interests to go on that she'd drop out; indeed, there are some signs that a decision may be in the offing. But Clinton won't be doing anything wrong should the decision to be to continue on, and it's insulting to pretend otherwise.

But Clinton is at this point extremely unlikely to win the nomination. Barack Obama has proven he can take a punch, he's proven he can stay on his feet when the world is caving in, and he's built up an impregnable lead in pledged delegates and the popular vote.

Clinton, like Dennis Green's Arizona Cardinals prior to the rant that spawned this post's title, had her opponent from Illinois on the ropes. He was who she thought he was. But she let him off the hook.

John McCain

McCain is down because, well, the Democratic campaign is winding down. He's going to have to start actually campaigning against a Democratic opponent. And that's bad news if you're John McCain. McCain is at this point essentially spineless, bereft of money or charisma, facing significant discontent within his own party. He's strongly aligned himself with the least popular president in American history, and my friends, he's not really that charismatic or impressive on the stump. McCain has been reasonably close to Obama and/or Clinton in the polls, primarily because neither has really had time to go after him. That's about to change.

Who's Out

Under the admittedly flexible rules I've used to determine who goes into this category over the past four years, I would ordinarily have Hillary Clinton here. But frankly, I have too much respect for her to put her into this category before she puts herself into it. I really don't believe she can win at this point, but if I'm right about that, she will have still run the best losing primary campaign in the modern era, and perhaps the second best primary campaign in the modern era, period. That may not be the presidency -- frankly, what is? -- but it's still a tremendous legacy. When the first woman is sworn in as president, she will credit Hillary Clinton for paving the way for her. It isn't a win. But it isn't exactly a loss, either.

Power rankings to follow tomorrow night

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