Are Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama killing each other politically?

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A NEW phrase has entered the language of United States' Democrats, dazed and confused by their party's vindictive and drawn-out nomination battle: The Tonya Harding Option.

Harding, famously, was the American figure skater who in 1994 organised the crippling of a rival so that neither would win gold at the Olympics. Some Democrats now fear that Hillary Clinton will play the Tonya card, determined that if she is not going to the White House, nor will her rival Barack Obama.

The last two days have marked a new low in the candidates' relations. When the Obama camp contrasted Mrs Clinton's claims of coming under sniper fire in Bosnia with the reality of her tranquil visit, Mrs Clinton shot back by savaging Mr Obama's links to fiery black pastor Jeremiah Wright, famous for the phrase "God damn America".

"We don't have a choice when it comes to our relatives," said Mrs Clinton, in her first comments on the Wright controversy. "We have a choice when it comes to our pastors."

For Mr Obama's officials, it was the latest proof that she wants to pull the house down on both of them.

Conspiracy theories in the Obama camp say Mrs Clinton knows that if he wins the presidency, her own ambitions are over. But if Mr Obama, wounded and vulnerable, were to lose to Republican Senator John McCain, Mrs Clinton, now 60, would be young enough to have another tilt at the Democratic nomination in four years' time.

Clinton officials rubbish such claims, but the suggestion shows the dismay gripping the party.

Not a week goes by without both camps launching barbs at one another. Recent clashes have seen Mrs Clinton's aide, Geraldine Ferraro, accusing Mr Obama of owing his success to being black, while Mr Obama's foreign policy adviser told The Scotsman that Mrs Clinton was "a monster."

The winner is John McCain. While his rivals squabble, he is doing his best to present an image of a calm, assured statesman – in short, a president.

Yesterday, he announced a switch from the go-it-alone policy of the Bush administration that has alienated the US from so much of the world: "Our great power does not mean we can do whatever we want whenever we want," he told an approving audience. "We need to listen to the views and respect the collective will of our allies."

The polls show his strategy is working. A month ago, he trailed Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama among independent voters. Now he leads them both.

The Clinton-Obama fight is also starting to tear the party apart. A New York Times poll yesterday found nearly a third of Clinton supporters will vote for Mr McCain if Mr Obama wins the nomination. Nearly 20 per cent of Obama supporters would do the same thing if Mrs Clinton wins. Such feelings may gift the White House to the Republicans, an astonishing result given the mess the Bush administration has made with the economy and the war in Iraq.

"The problem is that each day Clinton and Obama spend consumed with the other is a day that moves John McCain closer to the White House", said Noam Scheiber of the New Republic magazine, writing of a "Democratic death march".

Mr Obama's aides insist Mrs Clinton should throw in the towel, saying the numbers make it very difficult for her to win.

She is currently 160 delegates behind Mr Obama with ten contests to go, and a further 600 delegates up for grabs. Without some catastrophic new revelation, he is sure to end the campaign with a majority. The party's appointed "superdelegates" are the ones who will now decide the nominee at the August party convention, but never in their history have those delegates gone against the popular vote. In short, it is argued, Mrs Clinton has no realistic chance of becoming the nominee.

But still the battle goes on. Clinton staff say they expect the campaign to continue through May and into early June and all the way to the summer convention, when she hopes her friendships with the party top-brass can carry the day for her.

Terrified that this worsening battle will wreck the party, Democratic officials are trying to head it off.

Leading Democrats have begun talks on having a meeting of party elders in June to settle the contest there and then. The problem is that with the party divided, there are few people qualified to act the part of "honest broker."

The powerful Congress Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, is likely to take up the role, but she has already angered the Clinton camp by ruling out talk of an Obama-Clinton "dream ticket".

That other party heavyweight, Massachusetts governor Ted Kennedy, has lined up behind Barack Obama.

Step forward Al Gore, winner of both the Nobel prize and a Hollywood Oscar for his efforts on global warming, and still many Democrats' choice for president. Mr Gore ruled himself out of the race early on but the man who was once Bill Clinton's vice-president is probably the only Democrat alive with the kudos to act as a referee

For the Democrats, the end of the Clinton-Obama war could mean a chance for the party to unite to confront Mr McCain .

But for that to happen, the party must first get its own house in order and, on the evidence of this week, that will be a long time coming.


"The campaign has gotten too negative – too many personal attacks, too much negativity"

CLINTON CAMP"We have to decide who is on the top ... the people of Ohio very clearly said it should be me"

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