WASHINGTON - The endless Democratic presidential campaign has lurched from irrelevance to trivia, triggering a near-universal call to bring it to a halt.
The two states that voted on Tuesday - Indiana and North Carolina - are so unimportant to Democratic chances of electing the next president that it is unlikely that Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama will make more than a token appearance there after one of them is nominated.
Unless John McCain butchers his campaign, he will be an odds-on favorite to continue the Republican winning streak in both states. Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry and a host of earlier candidates failed to make them competitive.
In a sensible nominating system, these states would never become important battlegrounds. Lots of people complain that Iowa and New Hampshire enjoy disproportionate influence because of their place at the start of the process. But both are closely contested in November -- not throwaways.
Indiana and North Carolina were doubly irrelevant this year, because the "issues" that Clinton and Obama were discussing in their two weeks there were some of the phoniest of this entire election cycle.
Obama was all but obliterated for that time by the huge media-fanned controversy over his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Wright's inflammatory comments were obnoxious, but they bore no resemblance to the rhetoric and the record of the Illinois senator. I'd like to know the kind of people Obama would bring into his White House, and where he would turn for a Cabinet, because there is so much uncertainty about his actual policies at home and abroad.
But Wright will clearly not be anywhere in that administration, so why waste a full fortnight on him?
But if Obama contributed to the Wright fiasco by his hesitancy in breaking with him, Clinton was worse. She flooded North Carolina and Indiana with phoniness - playing a drag version of Dennis Kucinich, a beer-drinking populist, not the honors graduate of Wellesley and Yale Law School that she is.
As if that were not enough, she joined McCain in promoting the idea of a gas tax holiday that would last just through the summer, a step that would guarantee no actual reduction in the price at the pump and could encourage more energy waste. The fact that this cockamamie idea had already been rejected not only by President Bush but by the Democratic speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, did not deter Clinton from promoting it as if it were a serious policy.
For all the factors that ought to diminish the importance of Tuesday's results, the political effect was to move Obama a significant distance down the road to nomination. He added to his delegate totals and, more important, the two largest remaining states are off the table, leaving Clinton without plausible places to recover.
The states that are left, including West Virginia, Kentucky, Oregon, Montana and South Dakota, are small in population and notably lacking in the kind of political prestige that would magnify their influence on the uncommitted superdelegates.
Since it began last year, this has been a fascinating campaign. The massive turnouts, especially on the Democratic side, augur well for their nominee. But as I talked to a variety of officials just before and after Tuesday's primary, the weariness with the process they expressed became stronger with each passing day.
In celebrating his big victory in North Carolina, Obama signaled that he was as tired of battling Clinton as most Democrats are of watching them. He was gracious to his opponent and plainly eager to move on to the general election campaign against McCain.
The optimists in his camp believe he may be able to wrap it up this month, but even if the fight goes longer than that, the outcome no longer seems to be in doubt.
The wobbles in Obama's performance this past month signal at least some of his vulnerabilities. But his strengths have been demonstrated many, many times. All of them will be needed in the challenge ahead.
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