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Clinton and Romney Gain From Recession Fears

Obama and McCain are their closest rivals, but voters want a leader they trust to steer the U.S. to safety.
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Voters are showing they care more and more about the economy as we get closer to Super Tuesday.

The three-day holiday weekend had a full campaign schedule: In Nevada, both parties held a caucus, and in South Carolina, the Republicans held a primary and the Democrats had a contentious debate.

This weekend revealed a race that boils down to two head-to-head matchups: Hillary Clinton vs. Barack Obama and John McCain vs. Mitt Romney. The deciding factors going forward will be economic experience and party backing, both of which favor Clinton and Romney.

With the housing market and stock market stumbling, the election focus will shift to the economy, with voters deciding which candidate they trust to manage the economy.

Democrats

On the Democratic side, Clinton has built her campaign on the idea that she is the most experienced and is best equipped to handle the country's problems. So far, this has worked. She has won the last two contests in New Hampshire and Nevada.

Those wins mark a disturbing trend for Obama's campaign. Core Democratic voters have started to line up behind Clinton; these include Hispanics, women, working-class voters making less that $50,000 a year and voters older than 60.

Obama can only blame himself for this shift. Like all of the Democratic candidates, he has run on a message of change, but he's distinguished himself in a manner that could backfire. In stump speeches, he has vilified the battles of the 1960s, saying they divided our nation. This would include issues such as civil rights, human rights, women's rights and expanding health care (like Medicare, a critical program for seniors). All of these issues remain important to Democratic voters, many of whom argue that those struggles continue today.

Clinton has an edge infrequently discussed in the media. She has lined up the support of many in the Democratic Party who are

superdelegates -- elected officeholders and party officials who aren't bound by caucus and primary outcomes. The Democratic Party created superdelegates in 1982 in an effort to maintain some control over the nominating process, though the popular vote has decided every nomination so far. Superdelegates number 796. According to

CNN.com, Clinton leads in endorsements with 174, over Obama's 85 and Edwards' 34. This leaves about another 400 superdelegates up for grabs.

These figures do not include committed superdelegates fromMichigan and Florida, because the states have been excluded in a disagreement over primary dates. This leaves approximately 450 undeclared superdelegates, many of whom are unlikely to endorse a candidate this late in the race.

Speculation has it that the Michigan and Florida superdelegates will be reinstated at the Democratic convention in late August. This would be a boon to Clinton.

Republicans

On the Republican side, the race between McCain and Romney remains remarkably close. Mike Huckabee won the first caucus in Iowa, but attacks on his record as Arkansas' governor have stalled his momentum. Since Iowa, McCain and Romney have traded wins. Romney has the overall lead in delegates with 66 to McCain's 38.

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Recent national polls have shown McCain moving into first place over both Huckabee and Romney. It's hard to judge the validity of these polls in light of past predictive history in the Republican race. For example, Rudy Giuliani led national polls all summer and fall with similar margins to McCain's. Even Huckabee knocked off Giuliani for about a week.

Over the weekend, Romney easily won Nevada because he was the only candidate who had spent significant time campaigning there. South Carolina seemed more important. There, McCain edged Huckabee despite the considerable Christian conservative influence in the state.

Exit polls from the Palmetto State showed voters' No. 1 concern was the economy. But voters also said they cared more about a candidate's values than his experience. The latter explains why McCain and Huckabee performed so well.

The economy, however, will remain a hot topic for the next few months with voters all over the nation. This should help Romney, who will be able to tout his experience in business as the head of Bain Capital Management, a successful private-equity firm. Romney's reputation is also bolstered by his turnaround of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. The Olympics were plagued by scandal. Romney rejuvenated the games and brought in hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate sponsorships.

McCain, on the other hand, has sheepishly said he has little economic experience. He mentioned this during a recent Republican debate and made similar comments to

The Wall Street Journal

's editorial board. It appears that his lone economic adviser is another former senator, Phil Gramm.

Romney's message on the economy allowed him to beat McCain in Michigan. I think the Romney campaign will continue to play up this distinction in the run up to Super Tuesday, including using sound bites of McCain about his lack of experience.

Romney is also better placed to campaign nationally than McCain, given his vast fortune.

Romney also has better backing from conservative elites than McCain. I

have written about how McCain has managed to discourage conservatives with his atypical legislative record. Romney, on the other hand, has received the endorsement of important voices, such as

The National Review's

.

Should the economy remain the news story of the next few weeks, then look for Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney to secure the nominations in their respective parties.