Is it over yet?
Everybody seems to be complaining about the endless Democratic presidential primaries. Sen. Barack Obama's supporters even wonder out loud whether Sen. Hillary Clinton will deliver a concession speech before Inauguration Day.
Yet, as exhausting as the process has been, the Democrats' long march has value. It has made better campaigners of the two candidates and taught the rest of us a lot about them both.
It has exposed their vulnerabilities and refined their strengths in preparation for the general election.
Imagine, for example, if Obama had received the comparatively easy ride to the nomination that Sen. John Kerry received after winning the Iowa caucuses in 2004. The Illinois senator would not have had the chance to show himself or the rest of us how well he could handle crises and setbacks.
Same for Clinton. I have heard even some die-hard Hillary-haters express begrudging admiration for her determination, resourcefulness and fierce advocacy for her beliefs.
Who, for example, would have guessed that she would win the endorsement in the Pennsylvania primary of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, owned by conservative Richard Mellon Scaife, a financier of what Hillary Clinton used to call the "vast right-wing conspiracy?" Politics is full of surprises.
And Obama learned how quickly his rock-star popularity could turn against him. His rapid rise to the national stage before most of the public outside of Illinois grew to know him very well worked in his favor before; suddenly, it didn't.
The primaries have shown how his strong appeal with younger, higher-income voters concealed his lack of connectedness to older and lower-income voters who lacked college degrees. Exit polls show Clinton winning an overwhelming average of 57 percent of white Democrats since the Super Tuesday primaries.
Clinton cleverly and aggressively painted Obama as an "elitist." Despite having come from a more fortunate upbringing than Obama, Clinton turned into a passionately populist activist for ordinary "hard-working" folks complete with a rural accent that the Park Ridge native apparently picked up during her Arkansas years.
Obama responded appropriately, ridiculing Clinton at one point for trying to come off like "Annie Oakley in a duck blind" to please gun-totin' voters. He moved out of the big-arena speeches and into neighborhood coffee shops and basketball courts for more intimate conversations with a wider array of voters.The long campaign also has helped both candidates to get a better idea of what's really on voters' minds. Obama kept Clinton to an embarrassingly close victory in the Indiana primary by challenging her on an issue of real importance to regular folks, her proposed "gas tax holiday." Obama attacked the idea, also favored by Sen. John McCain, the likely Republican presidential nominee. Obama called it a "gimmick" that sounded good but wouldn't really save motorists money in the short-run and would only cost them in the long-run. He gambled on the good sense of ordinary voters, which is always a risky proposition, but he apparently won. That's encouraging.
The big question now facing Obama and the Democratic Party is whether he can win enough working-class voters in the fall. I wouldn't count him out.
Autumn is the big game changer. So far, his ability to win working-class voters has been held back by Clinton's big name and influential friends in the Democratic Party's hierarchy. Most of the Democratic mayors, governors, county chairs and others who have supported Clinton will be working for Obama, if he's the Democratic nominee. So will Clinton, if she keeps her word.
And the Democrats' battle-tested nominee is likely to face McCain in a year that does not favor anyone with connections to the Bush administration. McCain is portraying himself as a "change" candidate, a theme that Obama has all but made his own.
Polls also show race is a very real factor, but when is it not? The Associated Press, for example, found that "about 8 percent of whites would be uncomfortable voting for a black for president." I'm not surprised. I've seen worse numbers. I've been around long enough to be gratified that the percentage is that low.
Either way, if Obama is nominated, he needs to remember that some people lie to pollsters in matters of race. He's already seen that in some of the primaries and it has only made him work that much harder. Thanks to the long primary season, he can work smarter too.