MANASSAS, Va. — It’s come down to this: Who can beat John McCain?

Winning that argument could allow Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton to reach beyond their respective demographic comfort zones. Only if one of them can build a clear majority will the party be saved from a descent into the mire of rules fights and back-room dealing. It will also take leadership to protect the Democratic village from chaos and recriminations.

For the moment, the world is moving Obama’s way: He swept four states last weekend and is favored in virtually all the contests between now and the more-competitive March 4 primaries in Ohio and Texas. Polling suggests that Obama can draw independents whom Clinton can’t reach and can mobilize new and younger voters in a way Clinton never will.

Obama drove that perception by offering a brief against the politics of Clintonism: She “starts off with 47 percent of the country against her,” he said in Alexandria, Va., on Sunday. Her husband presided over the Democrats’ loss of Congress. It’s hard to imagine that she can “break out of the politics of the past 15 years.” The alternative: the anti-depressant right there on the shelf in front of them. Its brand is Obama.

Yet there is another world in Democratic politics, a practical, mostly middle-aged and middle-class world that is immune to fervor and electricity. It is made up of people with long memories who are skeptical of fads and like their candidates tough, detail-oriented and — to use a word Obama regularly mocks — seasoned.

These are the Hillary people, and they gathered here in significant numbers at the Grace E. Metz Middle School, cozy schools being a preferred venue for a Clinton campaign aware that mammoth rallies are normally beyond its reach.

She does not lack for loyalists. Paulie Abeles of Derwood, Md., held aloft a hand-printed sign that did not mince words: “Talk Is Cheap. Mistakes Are Expensive.”

Abeles explained that people who are being “swept along by the eloquence of Barack Obama’s speeches” forget that at one time, George W. Bush was seen as “charming” and “inspirational.” And electability was on her mind. If President Bush raised the terror level four days before the election (“I happen to be very cynical,” she averred), the Democrats would want their most experienced candidate confronting McCain.

Clinton spoke directly to her audience’s skepticism of good talkers — ironic in light of her husband’s oratorical gifts. “You’re so specific,” she quoted people as telling her. “Why don’t you just come and give us one of those great rhetorical flourishes and get everybody all whooped up?” The crowd actually whooped at that. But eloquence, she said, is not the point, since the election “is not about me, it’s about us.”

If Obama is passion, Clinton is bread and butter. If she needs more flourishes, he could afford to traffic a bit more in the staples.

Her speech is a well-crafted recitation of how government could ease the lives of those without health insurance, students burdened by college loan costs, homeowners facing foreclosure, veterans who have been abandoned, the working poor who deserve a hand up.

As she speaks, Doug Hattaway, one of her aides, notes that her practical litany is precisely what appeals to working-class and middle-class voters who respond to “tangible issues.” They also rebel against the idea that they are not part of the cool, privileged masses for Obama. One of the signs at the Manassas rally defiantly touted “Well Educated High Earners for Hillary.” This is a party divided not by ideology but by sensibility. Things have gotten very personal.

And that is why feelings would be so raw if this nomination were settled by something as grubby as a credentials fight over disputed delegates from Florida and Michigan. Two things are true. Delegations from those important states, currently in defiance of party rules, will eventually have to be seated. But if Clinton were to take the nomination because of her “victories” in primaries that all the candidates agreed not to contest, she would be seen by her adversaries as cheating.

The only solution is for the two states to agree to hold new rounds of voting that look as much like primaries as possible before the process ends in early June. Doing so would increase the chances that voters, not insiders, would pick the nominee. Democrats would not have to put up with invidious comparisons between their battle and the ugliness of Bush v. Gore. And one of these candidates might then actually be able to win.

A breakout, a fair deal, or bedlam: Those are the Democrats’ options.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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