Lingering questions remain for Democrats

Punch-counterpunch. Kentucky-Oregon. Clinton-Obama.

Voters here and in Kentucky delivered another split decision Tuesday in the long-running race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Nevertheless, for Hillary Clinton, Oregon pushed the clock to five minutes to midnight, leaving her precious little room or time to jockey for delegates.

Kentucky came in strongly for Clinton, boosting her longshot campaign even as it moves into its final two weeks. But moments after polls closed here, Oregon did the same for Obama — echoing the huge turnout for his rally on Portland's waterfront on Sunday. While Obama apparently has launched his final sprint toward his nomination, the mixed messages from the two states raise concerns for all Democrats.

Will supporters of Obama and Clinton be able to join hands when this is over? Can Obama regain the blue-collar vote that Clinton has captured over the last month? Can the eventual nominee close the demographic fault lines of race, gender, income and age that have widened as the race has been extended? Can Clinton, Obama and the party leadership find a way to bring the Democrats of Michigan and Florida in from the cold, without alienating them by discounting their votes?

For an electoral process so far along toward the finish, these are large, lingering questions. And while the clock and arithmetic is running in Obama's favor, the moment of reconciliation was postponed again on Tuesday. It's a script that could have been written by John McCain.

The Republican nominee-to-be staggered so badly early in the race that the talking heads competed to predict his withdrawal. Yet he persisted, running within the leading pack of Republican contenders until his last challengers dropped away. And now, having swept the field, the McCain campaign will do its best to exploit the growing divisions exposed by the Democrats' running battle.

McCain is campaigning against Obama already, while Obama still must navigate a graceful conclusion to the nominating process — wooing superdelegates, talking to party leaders about the Michigan-Florida conundrum and tamping down bitterness that has begun to flow from the protracted race. His generous remarks about Clinton in Iowa Tuesday night were evidence of that effort.

The remaining elections in Montana, South Dakota and Puerto Rico won't remap the contest for the Democratic nomination. The decisive moment still waits in the shadows, somewhere in the Democratic Party rules process — or in the heart of Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

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