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US 2016: Trump, Clinton surge towards head-to-head clash

US 2016: Trump, Clinton surge towards head-to-head clash

With the remaining North-eastern states now having had their say in the US presidential primary sweepstakes, it is increasingly clear the race for the White House will feature Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look.

Bam! Bam! Bam! That was the sound of a succession of doors slamming shut on the ambitions (or, perhaps more properly, the illusions) of several would-be presidents, in the wake of the so-called “Acela” primary in America on 26 April. “Acela” is the name of the not-quite-Bullet Train that runs from Washington DC to New England and, given the five simultaneous primary elections in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Rhode Island, the name for that particular Tuesday became inevitable.

On Tuesday night, Democratic voters turned out to give Bernie Sanders a not-quite final sayonara, handing substantial victories to Hillary Clinton in four of the five primaries, with Sanders gaining only the slim satisfaction of winning the vote in tiny Rhode Island. At this juncture, Clinton now has a significantly larger lead over her competitor than did Barack Obama over her, back in 2008 when Obama won the nomination outright before the actual convention, and she is closing in on the minimum number of delegates needed to claim the nomination.

As things stand now, Sanders would have to win something on the order of at least 90% of all remaining delegates left to be selected, between now and 7 June, in order to best his rival. And in his concession speech after the results were in on Tuesday night, there was precious little talk of winning the nomination. Rather, he talked about the ideas and policies he has been advocating and his hope that they could become a more substantial element of the party’s policy platform, once the platform is endorsed by the national nominating convention in Philadelphia at the end of July.

Still he has publicly promised to stay in the race until the final ballot on 7 June, especially as his supporters continue to make large numbers of contributions to his campaign, and his rallies draw big crowds (those crowds do not necessarily translate into votes, however). On Tuesday night in West Virginia he told his followers that they must recognise they are “powerful people if you choose to exercise that power”.

For her part, Clinton used her verbal victory lap to consciously look forward to the almost inevitable confrontation with Donald Trump in the general election. In her speech she called for party unity, set out how all Democrats seek a fairer economy, economic growth and the rest of the standard litany of worthy and noble policies, and deliberately eschewed any kind of attack on Sanders – signalling a posture pushing for party cohesion in the face of a grave threat to the commonwealth. And she may need some of that party unity juju, once Donald Trump’s character assassinating, human wrecking ball, verbal pyrotechnics begin to hone in on her in earnest, now that they have destroyed his opponents like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, and then on to “Lyin’ Ted Cruz” and John Kasich. (In a perhaps desperate move to create a new narrative Cruz announced on Wednesday afternoon E.T. that Carly “Fact-Free” Fiorina would be his running mate, should he somehow win the GOP nomination. – Ed)

Meanwhile, among Republicans, there are some very battle weary, shell-shocked troops among those left from what used to be called the GOP establishment. Despite an initial sense that the states of the North-east were not necessarily Donald Trump’s best and most fertile delegate hunting ground, Trump effectively demolished his two remaining opponents – Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Ohio Governor John Kasich – by winning all five state races. As Trump told supporters, “It’s over. As far as I’m concerned it’s over,” now that he has about 77% of the delegates he needs to clinch the nomination.

On Wednesday, Trump delivered his full throated speech on foreign policy at noon at the Mayflower hotel in downtown Washington on Wednesday.

“Trump declared the Obama foreign policy has been a total disaster, promised to insist the country’s allies must pay their full share of defense costs , and that the country will be tough against China, Russia , and ISIS .”

“Interestingly, and somewhat contradicting himself, he also called 9/11 – something that came on George W Bush’s watch – as the country’s worst ever national disaster.”

“He ended with a call to make America feared and respected — but promised an era of peace.”

And then it is off to campaign in Indiana, the state that holds its primary next Tuesday. This foreign policy address will be the first in a whole series of speeches Trump is expected to deliver over the next several weeks. These are being positioned to lessen concerns about his readiness to be an actual president – rather than a howling, snarling caricature of one and a vessel for expressions of dissatisfaction on the part of his raucous supporters.

Of course things are not quite as simple as the raw vote totals would indicate. Trump doesn’t get all the delegate votes from each of the five states, as some will be apportioned to delegates who will only to be chosen in a state-level convention, as with Pennsylvania in the near future. No matter. He still picked up most of them, and both Cruz and Kasich now have – literally – impossible tasks, respectively, for gaining sufficient delegates in the remaining primary contests so that either could capture the nomination.

Instead, the two under-candidates had recently forged a kind of politically anomalous alliance that would allow Cruz to campaign relatively uninhibited by Kasich’s campaigning in the Indiana primary next week (where he is presumed to be competitive still), for example; while Cruz would forego his campaigning in Arizona and Oregon, where Kasich was thought to have something approaching a chance to gain an edge over Trump.

But, now that the momentum (what George HW Bush once called “The Big Mo”) is firmly on Trump’s side after his five-state sweep, even this tacit, albeit unlikely, alliance of the logical, rational, and supposedly “adult in the room of squabbling children” Kasich and the hot-tempered, gut-fighting, hard-core conservative Cruz is already beginning to look like a flimsy, tissue of a device of the desperate that will, soon enough, be ground up by Trump’s next efforts in the remaining primaries. While this alliance thing was dreamt up right in the bosom of the Republican establishment – and brought out into the open in the person of one Mitt Romney, the former GOP candidate for president in 2012 – it had actually taken months for anything like this to be cobbled together. In the meantime, the primaries kept happening while the anti-Trump Republicans dithered.

By now, with Trump’s likely delegate count by the end of May being within a hair of the total needed to claim the nomination – even before Republicans in California, New Jersey, Montana, South Dakota and New Mexico vote on 7 June – the very best Cruz, Kasich and the attenuated establishment can hope for is that Trump just misses the needed total of 50%+1 delegates (1,237 or more by head count). In this dream, a near miss for Trump would generate the possibility of a convention where since he had just missed on the first ballot, in succeeding ballots his support would bleed away until another, presumably more centrist, more normal, Republican candidate (Paul Ryan, Scott Walker, Kasich, whoever) would be nominated in his place and put Humpty Dumpty back together again for the GOP.

Technically, this could happen, in part because not all the delegates in the Trump camp are dyed-in-the-wool Trump-ites, bound to vote for him forever and ever. But if he ended up with a frustrated first ballot run at the nomination, Trump has already argued that nomination should still belong to him anyway for coming so close. And, if he didn’t gain it outright, there might well be violence on the streets of Cleveland outside the convention hall – something he has half threatened, half predicted and blustered about.

Looking forward, both the Trump and Clinton campaigns are gearing up to take each other on, once the conventions have formally blessed their nominations. In his Tuesday night comments, Trump rolled out the charge yet again that Clinton is “weak”, adding that she is only running because she is female; and saying that if she were a man instead, she’d only have a support base of about 5% or so. (As he said that, the sour-appled grimace on the face of Chris Christie’s wife, standing right behind Trump, became a nearly instant viral phenomenon).

Meanwhile, Republican-style rumour mongering from places like the Drudge Report has been at the tear-down-Hillary-game as well via such below-the-radar efforts as implying she has some dreadful, secret, and very hush-hush illness – this by virtue of some coughing spells she has had during her speaking engagements. Her physician has previously pronounced her in good health, however.

In response to such comments about her candidacy-as-woman approach, Clinton said at her Tuesday night rally, “If fighting for women’s healthcare and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the ‘woman card’, then deal me in.”

Still, as the AP reported on the Clinton camp’s positioning of their candidate after her big Tuesday night, “While Clinton advisers say they won’t underestimate Trump, as many of his vanquished Republican rivals did, her campaign sees opportunities to not only energise Democrats in an effort to keep him out of the White House but also appeal to Republicans turned off by the brash billionaire. ‘If you are a Democrat, an independent or a thoughtful Republican, you know that their approach is not going to build an America where we increase opportunity or decrease inequality,’ Clinton said of the GOP candidates.”

Once the primary season ends and the conventions deliver their nominations, despite his attacks on her, Democratic strategists clearly anticipate that Donald Trump as Clinton’s opponent gives her an unusual opportunity to peel away centrist Republicans (and even that endangered species of moderates) from solid party support, to a position of considering a vote for Clinton, come November. In fact, the GOP is divided by the growing possibility of a Trump candidacy. While exit polls in Pennsylvania said 40% of GOP voters would be excited by a Trump candidacy, that same possibility frightened a quarter of those voters in the Republican primary. Moreover, in that same state, 60% of Republican voters said the race has divided their party, even as 70% of Democratic voters said the race between Clinton and Sanders had energised theirs.

We’ll be right back at it again, once the Hoosiers have made their decision about The Donald next Tuesday. DM

Photo: US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during a primary night event at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, 26 April 2016. EPA/TRACIE VAN AUKEN.

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