Much of the world is bemused by the savagery of the competition in the US presidential nomination race over smallish states like South Carolina and Florida. South Carolina saw mudslinging, overlaid with racial issues, between Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The going got tough in Florida as well, especially between Republican candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney.
The reason is Super Tuesday. On February 5 as many as 20 states will hold primaries, including populous ones like California and New York. Roughly a third of all the delegates who vote for the final candidate will be chosen on that one day. Candidates, therefore, need to build up sufficient momentum — and accompanying media attention and fund raising — to conquer all on Super Tuesday.
This is particularly important for the non-mainstream candidates like Obama. If they do not take early wins and trigger boosts in poll ratings their candidacies will fall into a spiral of indifference. Which is why Obama was so pleased by his sweep of the South Carolina vote. He also succeeded in wresting the black American vote away from Clinton.
The question for is whether the victory may have been too little, too late. South Carolina has yet to produce the sort of poll inflation that Obama needs for Super Tuesday. An average of opinion polls by realclearpolitics.com clearly shows his standing to be stuck at about a third of the vote. Clinton 's is at about 43 per cent and equally static. That is bad for Obama. It could mean Super Tuesday will effectively end his remarkable run for the Democratic nomination.
The Republican field, once crowded with nearly 10 candidates, is now down to three and, at long last, a clear frontrunner. John McCain, despite his decades in the US Senate, has long been seen as the maverick of his party, more like a Democrat on immigration and religion. He has a reputation for being a straight-talker, unfazed at sticking to unpopular positions like support for the war in Iraq.
The Republican race is essentially two separate battles. One battle, over moderate Republicans and independent voters, was being fought between McCain, Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani. Thompson is nearly finished. Giuliani, whose entire strategy had depended on sweeping the Sunshine State, is now expected to step down. Both the Thompson and Giuliani vote will now gravitate to McCain. An average of the polls shows McCain has about 27 percent of his party's support. Combined with Giuliani's 13 per cent and Thompson's one or two per cent, McCain pulls far ahead of the pack.
The other Republican battle, over the Christian and far right vote, is between Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee. And while Huckabee is trailing, his willingness to continue to plod on means the conservative Republican vote remains split.
A similar situation exists among the Democrats where the limping campaign of John Edwards drains off 10 or so percentage points which would probably have gone for Obama.
What McCain's victory in Florida has allowed him to do is to consolidate his section of the primary voters. This process, curiously, may take a longer time among the Democrats.