FORGET DELEGATES AND the popular vote for the Democratic presidential nomination. The most important thing Hillary Clinton gained by winning the Pennsylvania primary yesterday was a better argument--indeed, a much better argument.
Chances are, Clinton will trail Obama in the delegate count when the primaries end on June 3, as she does now. And while she may cut into his lead in the popular vote in the Democratic contests, she's not likely to exceed his vote total. So the only way she can capture the nomination is by convincing roughly 300 uncommitted super-delegates that Obama cannot defeat Republican John McCain in November but she can.
This isn't an easy case to make, especially with the super-delegates who will provide the margin of victory for whoever captures the 2,025 delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination. And at the moment, they appear strongly inclined to back Obama if he leads in delegates when the primary season is finished.
But after Pennsylvania, Clinton's argument that she's a stronger opponent against McCain will be impossible to ignore or dismiss. And it's not just because Clinton was outspent by nearly 3 to 1 by Obama and got tougher coverage from the media, yet trounced him by a substantial margin in a state that the Democratic presidential nominee must win in November.
The key was how she won in Pennsylvania. She clobbered him among the voting blocs that are critical to a Democratic victory: union households, women, Catholics, working class and downscale voters, and those who didn't attend college. The Democratic nominee who doesn't win a solid majority of these voting groups is all but certain to lose in November.
In fact, she ran stronger among these voters than she had in Ohio, another state where she topped Obama. Ohio, too, is a must win state for the Democratic nominee in November.
And there was a telling number from the exit poll of voters. Nearly one-third of Clinton voters said they wouldn't vote for Obama if he's the nominee. Now, it's likely many of these voters will change their minds. But a sizeable number may remain alienated from the nominee and vote for McCain. A smaller percentage of Obama voters said they wouldn't vote for Clinton if she wins the presidential nomination.
Clinton, of course, will stress this point. She'll emphasize how important the Democratic groups she won are to the party's coalition. And she will point to her pickup of around 200,000 more popular votes than Obama in Pennsylvania--an impressive margin.
If the votes in the Michigan and Florida primaries are included, Clinton actually is ahead of Obama in popular votes. For now anyway, the Democratic National Committee has ruled that the Michigan and Florida votes won't be counted because the states voted too early.
Her argument boils down to this: I can hold the traditionally Democratic voters critical to winning the general election and he can't, and thus I can defeat McCain and he can't. Sure, he's ahead in delegates, but he won many of them months ago, before the halo over his campaign was knocked off.
In the Democratic debate last week, she said "yes, yes, yes" when asked if she thinks Obama can defeat McCain. But, in private, she and her allies make the opposite argument: Obama can't win.
Before Pennsylvania, Clinton made the same argument, but her case was weaker. Now it's not only stronger, but it's changed the political environment. Clinton is no longer a hopeless underdog. Yes, she's still an underdog, but one with an argument and a prayer.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.