Three days after last Tuesday's primaries seemingly tilted the Democratic presidential nomination decisively toward Barack Obama, the surprising fact was that almost half the party's senators had not announced a choice between him and Hillary Clinton. Twenty-one of the 49 Democratic senators were publicly silent as the last six primaries approached.
Those senators, along with most other Democrats, desperately want the race to be over so the winner can start focusing on John McCain. But Dick Durbin understands their reluctance to step forward ahead of the other 200 or so uncommitted superdelegates who have the power to bring this marathon to an end.
As Senate majority whip, charged with rounding up votes on all the major issues, he knows their mind-set well. "They want to avoid hard votes," Durbin told me at midweek, referring to his colleagues. "They want to be spared controversy. Most of them are looking for certainty, for inevitability, before they commit."
Durbin, who encouraged his fellow Illinoisan to run, said he thought Tuesday's results an Obama landslide in North Carolina and a narrow loss in Indiana should be enough to meet the "inevitability" standard.
But the ranks of the uncommitted senators did not thin in the days after the voting, lending force to Durbin's analysis, although Obama gained other superdelegates.
The question is: What is the cost at this point of delaying Obama's triumph?
The answer you hear from Obama's headquarters is that the time lag from May 6 to June 3, the last day of voting, is not much of a problem, so long as Clinton does not use it mainly to point out his weaknesses. His aides don't want four more weeks of claims from the Clinton camp about gaps in his health plan or his vulnerability with Catholics, women and blue-collar white men.
The lateness of the convention not until the final week of August leaves enough time to heal the intraparty wounds and plan the general election campaign. Money has been no problem for Obama all year, and when his already impressive organization is bolstered by recruits from the Clinton side, it will look at least as formidable as McCain's.
That said, there is still a price to be paid for letting the nomination campaign drag on.
At the most personal level, it denies Obama the rest he badly needs. His friends talk with real concern about the fatigue he constantly feels and often shows. But as long as Clinton is campaigning in states that are potentially competitive in November, Obama cannot fail to show up, lest their voters think he is taking them for granted.
Beyond that, the iron law of politics is that time lost can never be completely recovered. Since McCain effectively cinched his nomination in February and mostly fell out of the news, he has accomplished a lot. He has targeted potential constituencies with appearances and messages tailored for them, knowing that other voters probably are not paying attention. One week recently he was hanging out with civil rights heroes and hurricane victims. Another, he was courting conservative critics of the judiciary and plugging for more business tax cuts.
After the convention, McCain can't stroke such disparate groups without being challenged for inconsistency. But for now, it's an almost cost-free way to expand and solidify his support.
Obama needs to do similar work, but because the nomination fight goes on, he doesn't have the time or relative obscurity to do it. To take but one example, primary results all across the country have shown that he is a stranger to many Latinos. If Clinton weren't still challenging, he could easily devote a week to a swing through Hispanic enclaves from California to New York.
History says that the earlier a candidate nails down his nomination, the better his chances of winning. I saw that vividly demonstrated in 1968. Richard Nixon came into that contest as a two-time loser, first to John Kennedy and then to Pat Brown in California. But he routed the other Republican contenders early and began plotting his comeback.
Meantime, after calamitous events, the Democrats finally gave their nod to Hubert Humphrey. But exhausted after the tumultuous Chicago convention and with no time to plan a campaign, he stumbled so badly in September and early October that his closing drive was unable to catch up to Nixon. Afterward, Humphrey said he wished he'd had one more week.
I certainly hope that Obama's path is not marked by the violence, riots and other calamities that undid the Democrats in 1968. But those supercautious superdelegates ought to understand how precious time is in every campaign.