When Will the Wounds Heal?

By: Wall Street Journal

A basic law of primary seasons is that the longer they go on, the nastier they get.

With Super Tuesday past, that law seems to be in full effect, especially for Democrats. Whatever else yesterday’s voting may have done, it did a good job of laying bare the divides within each party. More than that, it may have exacerbated the splits.

The Democratic fight between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton seems certain to continue, and it is showing a clear divide between whites and blacks, between Hispanics and non-Hispanics, between women and men, and between older and younger voters.

Among Republicans, the primaries may have tilted the race toward Arizona Sen. John McCain, but they also have widened the gap between his party’s moderates, who see him as a champion, and the conservatives who have lined up behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney or former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Sen. McCain may have won enough states yesterday to carry him to the nomination, but he hasn’t earned sufficiently large margins to claim a partywide mandate.

To some extent, of course, these divides are natural and predictable, and hardly unprecedented in a primary season. The question both parties face is whether the wounds the primary season is inflicting are superficial or deep, and whether they can be healed by November.

The problem for Democrats is that the race is opening up the kind of sensitive divides that go to the party’s very identity as an institution that unites races and genders.

The racial split was glaring in Georgia, where exit polls showed that roughly half the Democrats who voted were African-American, and that some 80% of them voted for Sen. Obama. And it wasn’t just Georgia. In New York, a much different kind of state, roughly six in 10 blacks went for Sen. Obama over Sen. Clinton in her home state.

The flip side of the black-white split is the white-Hispanic split. Hispanics are starting to consistently back Sen. Clinton. In the electoral crucible of California, for instance, roughly two-thirds of Hispanics went for her, exit polls showed.

There also is a less glaring split within the party between men and women, with women going for Mrs. Clinton, and older women showing more enthusiasm than younger women. Older Democrats generally are tending toward Sen. Clinton, younger ones toward Sen. Obama.

Among Republicans, the split that is becoming both more obvious and more nasty is between the party’s core conservatives, who often are distrustful, if not disdainful, of Sen. McCain, and more moderate party members who often are enamored of him.

It has gotten personal. Mr. Romney has come to attack Sen. McCain as not just an ersatz conservative, but one whose claims to be an heir to the Reagan legacy are dishonest. Sen. McCain has returned the favor, implying Romney policy reversals show he isn’t to be trusted. The results are visible in voting patterns: In the bellwether state of Missouri, Mr. Romney beat Sen. McCain by about 10 points among self-identified Republican conservatives, while Sen. McCain bested Mr. Romney by about 15 points among self-identified moderates. It has also become obvious that neither Sen. McCain nor Mr. Huckabee particularly likes Mr. Romney.

Now as the dust settles from Super Tuesday, the question for Republicans will be whether Mr. Romney and Mr. Huckabee fight on, in which case the wounds figure to grow deeper. Even if Sen. McCain is on his way to prevailing, the damage has been done.

In both parties, the question is what the ultimate nominees do about it — and how much the party’s rank and file actually wants to come together.

For the first steps in that direction, look for the speculation, now certain to grow, about what kind of vice-presidential selections might heal which wounds. On the Republican side, Sen. McCain and Mr. Huckabee seem to have developed a kind of mutual-admiration society, which is bound to lead to talk they may join on a ticket should Sen. McCain prevail. That surely would help Sen. McCain rebuild ties with social conservatives who still aren’t quite sure whether to trust him.

But the task for Sen. McCain still would be considerable. His strength as a candidate is his ability to reach beyond the party’s base to independents and conservative Democrats. But before he can do that, his first task will be to try to reunite and ultimately claim a conservative base that is somewhere between suspicious and hostile.

The reuniting task for Democrats ultimately may be easier. Racial divides can be particularly nasty, of course. But the best salve Democrats have to heal their wounds is simple: It is their intense, almost obsessive desire to win in a year when they think full political control of Washington is finally within their reach.

Write to Gerald Seib at jerry.seib@wsj.com

* Content From the Wall Street Journal supplied by Elva Ramirez:

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